Monkeys Eat Bananas: Black Virginia History Teacher Sues 10th Grader for Allegedly Racist Banana Insults

In early April 2022, a Newsweek reporter reached out to me via email for my professional comments on a “teacher suing [a] student over [a] racist act in Virginia.” My full April 4, 2022 reply is noted below. The final Newsweek article is linked here, where I am quoted at length.

Adam,

Thank you for asking my opinion. I’ve read the article you sent me, and my opinion is based on the information in that article and not on any personal knowledge of the facts in this matter. I do not practice law in VA, but I have practiced law in DC. Please send me a link to your final article.

I’ve practiced education law in multiple states on both coasts. While I’ve never heard of a case where a teacher sues a student for anything like this, it is more common for teachers like any other worker to sue their employers for negligence and hostile work environment when the employee is harassed at work.

It might be the case that the teacher needed to take matters to court to make a bigger point here because the school issued a meager two-day suspension for an arguable hate crime and an act of malicious and racist harassment against an African American teacher in a predominantly white public school. The 10th grade student is arguably old enough to know better, and a more appropriate punishment should have been immediate expulsion, especially when the school possesses video evidence of the student’s illegal actions.

If I were counsel in the matter, I would advise the teacher to consider a lawsuit against the school for supporting a hostile work environment via its negligent failure to dole out a reasonable punishment. A two-day suspension is what a student should expect when he cheats on a test or gravely insults another student. It sends a terrible message to other students, teachers, and the community when a student gets a slap on the wrist like this for such a disgusting series of alleged actions against a teacher. The fact that the student’s parents allegedly had the audacity to be upset by a two-day suspension might reflect the lack of sincerity of their initial alleged apology on his behalf.

This incident may also indeed reflect the racist climate of Newport News, VA which has recently seen its share of rallies against historical discrimination and racism in town, such as the SCLC-led August 2020 rally against Confederate monuments and figures there.

More recently, the Newport News City Workers Union demanded that the town support collective bargaining this past January right after MLK Day. The city’s alleged antipathy to unions is seen by the demonstrators as a relic of the Jim Crow era.

The town has well noted issues with racism, see: https://www.newportri.com/story/news/local/2020/06/05/black-leaders-describe-lsquopolite-and-subtlersquo-racism-in-newport/42440095/.

The Newport Daily News reported in June 2020 “”Racism here is more polite and subtle,” said Niko Merritt, who started Sankofa Community Connection to increase pride within the African American community in Newport County. “But it screams to kids that experience it … I’m amazed that they see it at such a young age.” In the schools there are discrepancies, she said, between how white students and students of color are treated.

“There definitely needs to be some changes here,” Merritt said. “I don’t know what it is about this place, but people see what’s going on but they don’t want to do anything about it. […] There’s an “implicit bias” within the schools, Merritt said. “Everyone has it, even the black teachers have it … we need to have conversations around that and let people know.””

I strongly urge you to seek Niko Merritt’s opinion here too for your article.

The history and continuation of racism in Newport News may be what has brought this teacher to the courts for relief when the school system cannot be relied upon to issue a sufficiently serious punishment against a teenager allegedly committing racist harassment of a teacher on a daily basis. It is a mockery of justice for the administration to issue a two-day suspension instead of expulsion when a white teenage student is caught on video regularly mocking his African American teacher with a banana in his doorway.

This is an act which seems to imply the African-American teacher is some sort of monkey — a deeply outrageous and frightening insult and a threat especially in a state with a horrid history of KKK activity and lynchings. The lawsuit against the student should only be the tip of the iceberg. I’m proud that CAIR has stood up here for the teacher. The SCLC and similar organizations should also be involved to confront the racism that may have bred such ugly and threatening actions here by the student and such a pathetic and enabling response by the school.

Thank you,

Ali Shahrestani, Esq.

Attorney-at-Law

Licensed NY, CA, MA.

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