Teacher Suspended for George Floyd Reference in Chemistry Question

Teacher’s George Floyd pun: bad taste, even offensive, but was it a firing offense?

by Hans Bader

A high-school teacher in Arlington is under investigation and has been “relieved of classroom duties” after posting a chemistry question that referred to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. “George Floyd couldn’t breathe because a police officer put his _____ George’s neck,” the question read. The answer is “neon,” an element that sounds like “knee on.”

If the teacher is fired from his position, that will violate his constitutional rights, because teachers weren’t on notice that such classroom references to killings were forbidden. While school districts are entitled to control what students are taught, they can’t punish instructors for classroom speech without first making clear that it’s prohibited. If “people of common intelligence” wouldn’t have known that such references were forbidden, then punishing an instructor for them “violates due process,” as judges explained Bradley v. University of Pittsburgh (1990).

For example, an appeals court overturned the discipline of a professor for classroom lectures deemed sexually insensitive, because he wasn’t on notice that his remarks — which weren’t aimed at any particular student — would be deemed to fall within the “nebulous outer reaches” of his college’s sexual harassment policy. (Cohen v. San Bernardino Valley College (1996)).

As Arlington Now reports:

A fill-in-the-blank question during a science class at H-B Woodlawn has caused an uproar.

The chemistry question, asked Tuesday during what ARLnow is told was a 10th grade class, references the police killing of George Floyd.

“George Floyd couldn’t breathe because a police officer put his _____ George’s neck,” the question reads. The answer is “neon,” the element that sounds like “knee on.”

Classes are currently being held virtually at Arlington public schools. Shortly after the class, a screenshot of the question started circulating on social media, and parents started calling the school. … In a letter to parents today, H-B’s principal said the secondary program — once known as “Hippie High” for its liberal approach to education — “does not tolerate any form of cultural or racial insensitivity.”

“We will be meeting directly with the students in the class, and will work with all of our H-B Woodlawn students to process the incident,” the letter goes on to say. “Our Student Services Team will be available for individual counseling and students can reach out directly to me as well. … We prioritize making H-B Woodlawn a safe and inclusive space for all students, staff, and parents. Yesterday an incident occurred that conflicts with our core values of respect, trust, social justice, and diversity. … Our Student Services Team will be available for individual counseling (emails below) and students can reach out directly to me as well. … We will continue to update the community on the steps we are taking both in the short-term and long-term.”

In a mass email today to Arlington parents like me, the school superintendent stated:

On Tuesday, as part of a class exercise, an H-B Woodlawn teacher shared an example with students that showed significant racial insensitivity. The content referenced the killing of George Floyd in an unacceptable and senseless way, which hurt and alarmed our students, staff, families, and the community. The reference showed extremely poor judgement and a blatant disregard for African American lives.

This act violates the core values of the school system and reinforces the importance of the work we have been doing, and must continue to do, to employ culturally responsive teaching practices and to combat systemic racism. The teacher has been relieved of classroom duties while an investigation related to this matter takes place. I want to assure everyone that this situation will be handled in accordance with our policies, and all staff are held to the highest standards of professional behavior….

While we have made major progress to improve our policies and programs, we know we have more work to do. We are incorporating frameworks like No Place for Hate this year to reinforce that Arlington Public Schools is a safe learning community and to empower our staff and students to take a stand against bias and bullying.

This is an overreaction. While the teacher’s reference to the killing of George Floyd was tone-deaf, it was not an instance of bullying, nor did it endanger students’ safety, show a disregard for the sanctity of human life, or engage in racial discrimination.

Many teachers have referred to famous killings in classroom examples or exam questions. Referring to such killings does not show bias, even if the killing is of a member of a particular race or sex (as killings usually are). When I was in college and law school, instructors used examples involving serial killer Ted Bundy. Bundy, a misoygnist, killed 30 women, targeting them in part based on their sex. But citing Bundy in class didn’t make my professors sexist, anymore than citing George Floyd’s killing made the Arlington teacher a racist.

Floyd’s wrongful killing also doesn’t seem to be an example of “systemic racism,” as opposed to simple brutality. Prosecutors have never charged the police who killed Floyd with a hate crime, or with murdering him because of his race. Floyd’s death was similar to police killings of white victims like Tony Timpa, who died after 14 minutes of struggling to breathe. Police killings usually occur for reasons unrelated to race, and many victims are white.

So the Superintendent was jumping to conclusions when he asserted that using George Floyd in this example showed a “blatant disregard for African American lives,” and suggested that it reinforced “systemic racism.”

The teacher’s citing George Floyd’s killing was not racial discrimination, even if it was ill-advised. He did not aim it at black students, which makes it harder to claim it was racial harassment. (See Rodriguez v. Maricopa Community College District (2010)). More importantly, it was not remotely as offensive as racist remarks that courts have found not severe enough to constitute racial harassment. (See, e.g., Witt v. Roadway Express (1998); Bolden v. PRC (1995)).

So it doesn’t constitute discriminatory harassment. Trying to stretch the school system’s existing policies against harassment or discrimination to cover speech this mild would render those policies overbroad and vague, and would lead to them being struck down as a violation of free speech. (See, e.g., Saxe v. State College Area School District (2001)).

Nor did the teacher violate school policies against violence or bullying. Merely referring to violence (like the death of George Floyd) isn’t itself violence, and thus can’t be banned under rules against violence or bullying. For example, in Bauer v. Sampson, a federal appeals court ruled that a campus newspaper’s depiction of a college official’s imaginary death was protected by the First Amendment, even though the college declared it a violation of its policy against “workplace violence.”

Nor was the teacher’s speech bad enough to be considered legally disruptive, just because it annoyed some students and parents. For example, a court ruled that a public employee could not be fired for moonlighting as a blackface entertainer in Berger v. Battaglia (1985). The employee’s speech wasn’t considered disruptive, despite the fact that it offended many black people. That ruling was by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over the Arlington schools.

So the teacher would not have been on notice that school rules against disruptive behavior would forbid him from using George Floyd in an example.

Hans Bader is an attorney living in Northern Virginia. This column was published originally in Liberty Unyielding.

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20 responses to “Teacher Suspended for George Floyd Reference in Chemistry Question

  1. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    The school teacher in question is going to need an attorney to keep the chemistry job. In normal times this would have been quietly dealt with in the principal’s office and the matter would have been concluded. Teacher would have gotten the message and would stick to chem. Unfortunately these are not normal times.

  2. That level of stupid needs another line of work.

    • I wanted to say, “Ya can’t fix stupid, but you can fire it,” but felt it too simplistic even for me. Sometimes, however, it just fits.

      Could be worse. Math does strange things.

    • Not sure I agree. I think competence should be part of the equation. Also, is this a pattern of behavior, or a single incident?

      If this teacher is knowledgeable and otherwise effective as a teacher of our youth, is this one incident more important? What after all is the primary mission of our schools? Is it to shelter students from ever hearing anything potentially offensive, or to educate them?

      No room for forgiveness and opportunity to learn the lesson? Is that the takeaway we should leave with students. In Virginia, even felony charges can be expunged, but one strike and you’re out for impropriety?

  3. You pick some interesting hills to die on, Hans. I get your point, and whether or not to fire this person might hang on whether there is a pattern here. If not perhaps lesson learned and move on. Most of the complaints from the uber touchy about being offended or suffering angst are bogus, and then you see one where it is not. A bad reaction among students to that horrible attempt at humor would be perfectly understandable. Respect and civility are things all teachers must practice at all times, if we expect the lesson to be followed.

    • “You pick some interesting hills to die on, Hans.”

      I agree. It’s not like there isn’t anything else going on either.

      To me the story below seems to be a potentially much more consequential issue. Looks like an African American police chief was fired for enforcing the law on the politically connected.

      “Virginia police chief fired as felony charges are dropped in Confederate vandalism case”

      “Portsmouth Police Chief Angela Greene was fired as felony charges were dismissed against Sen. Louise Lucas, Virginia’s most senior Black legislator, and 18 others.”


      Any thoughts Mr. Bader?

      • “Looks like an African American police chief was fired for enforcing the law on the politically connected.”

        Excellent! We’ve achieved true equality.


  4. As puns go, I’ve seen worse – heck, I’ve posted worse right here on this forum.

    However, this teacher should have known that putting such an inappropriate question/statement on a science test was playing with fire. And now he might need to play with F.I.R.E. if he wants to keep his job. [See what I mean?]

    On the one hand, I am glad to see that “does not tolerate any form of cultural or racial insensitivity” appears to be enforced even-handedly at the school. On the other hand, I think it would be a shame for a good teacher to lose his job over one stupid mistake (assuming he is a good teacher and that this was an isolated incident of [very] poor judgement on his part).

  5. Not sure what the point is here. It seems a teacher did something stupid. Just tell not to do it again.

  6. Baconator with extra cheese

    That was plain stupid. Firing seems harsh. Plus kids can learn a lot from an adult walking in the room and without an excuse or hesitation saying “I made a mistake and I was wrong”.
    What is truly missing from this world is a chance at redemption for honest mistakes or minor lapses in judgment. But you can’t expect redemption if you ask for forgiveness with an attached excuse and without accepting full responsiblity for your actions.

  7. “All comics face a moment of reckoning. Know your audience.” — Michael Richards**

    ** well, he would have said it.

  8. Like most things in life, there might be more to this than we know.
    I have a high school friend who teaches biology at a Northern prep school – one of the most prestigious. You would recognize the name. After George Floyd, their “diversity” department decreed that teachers had to build into their curricula “justice-based pedagogy.” Maybe this teacher is trying to comply with a similar edict, or maybe it is a bad joke.
    What I dislike about it is that it is arguably not true. George Floyd’s death is also more nuanced – he likely did not die from the knee on his neck. Rather, the coroner told the county attorney on May 31, 2020 that he would conclude fentanyl overdose in the absence of other contributing factors. The police handled him according to their training. The internal memo of this conversation was not released until late August and maybe would have been helpful instead of destroying Minneapolis. In a fair jury trial there is no way to convict these cops of murder . I doubt they could convict them fairly of negligent homicide. Enjoy the riots – oops, protests! – to follow.
    Like our discussion of the scientific method the other day, facts matter and assertions need to be tested. This is akin to dying with Covid versus from Covid. Floyd tested positive for Covid – maybe THAT was the contributing factor… (Being facetious, but maybe it didn’t help – his lungs were full of fluid, it was the fentanyl – but let the legal process play out and pursue the truth).
    In any event, the teacher should not be fired for a stupid question. BUT, he may have an excuse if Arlington has a similar “justice-based” edict for teachers…

  9. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    If you put teachers under this kind of microscope you will need A I to run the classrooms

    • I think that’s particularly true in science and math. I’ve worked in technology for over 20 years. Some of the most brilliant people I’ve worked with lack social skills. Many worked for me. When situations arise, disciplinary action or firing is a last resort, not the only tool in the toolbox.

      Obviously there are limits to what can be tolerated, but everyone has deficiencies. If people’s feelings are at the pinnacle of importance, we’re heading down a difficult path.

      Some schools are plagued with violence, drugs, gangs, and numerous other problems. Does this really compare?

      • You’re not suggesting that geniuses can be somewhere on the autism spectrum, are you? Somebody should make a TV comedy on that premise!
        (What? They did?)

        • Or read blogs…

        • Actually no. I didn’t mean to suggest that. Everyone has deficiencies.

          But since you brought it up, should people depicted negatively on comedy shows sue for damages because they are offended?

          Perhaps we should rewrite our founding documents.

          We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, (a degree of) Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (defined as never being offended).

    • It’s also an interesting contrast to the UVA student who offends publicly with the “queen mother of profanity,” and does so with impunity.

  10. Sounds like things were under control until the social media leak. Social media is really powerful impact on life today…I want to say possibly destroying us…not sure. My hypothesis in the USA we are emotional, not science or logic, driven. So social media gets to our particular societal weakness. Good news for Russia/China, except I think China probably has some analogous weaknesses. Maybe Russia will come out ahead due to less “religion” of all kinds.

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