Editorial, November 20, 1996, Post Dispatch


Exhibit A in Cissy Lacks' successful suits against the Ferguson-Florissant School District could have been Reginald McNeary, one of her former students at Berkeley High School. Before he had Ms. Lacks as an English teacher, writing was far from his favorite activity; once she had let him express himself, first in raw language, then with more acceptable words, he became an award-winning poet.

The key to the process was starting with what Reginald and his fellow students already knew, then teaching them how to make it better. In this case, what they already knew was difficult to hear, and it was certainly not acceptable language for the students to use in their interactions at school.

In the context of an academic assignment, however, the words became not epithets but tools for teaching. That key difference is what school district officials still don't appear to understand or accept.

Ms. Lacks was fired in 1995 after her students made a videotape containing obscene language as part of an assignment. Since that time, battle lines have hardened. Administrators said her dismissal was justified because the students' obscenities violated district policy against such language. She said the policy applied to students, not to her, and she was never told that her job could be in jeopardy.

She also makes the crucial distinction between language used in conversation, where she says she has never allowed obscenity, and language used in academic writing. She didn't teach them the language in question; she taught them how to move from expressing themselves that way to expressing themselves in more acceptable words. To short-circuit the process by disallowing the original expression, she said, would be a sure way to end their interest and stunt their progress.

So far, Ms. Lacks' position has prevailed in the courts. Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Catherine D. Perry ordered her reinstated to her job, with back pay. Monday night, a jury in Judge Perry's court awarded her $750,000 on her claims of unfair dismissal and racial discrimination. Ferguson-Florissant has appealed the reinstatement order and plans to appeal the financial award as well.

Difficult teaching assignments sometimes require unorthodox methods. The language used by Ms. Lacks' students was an unpleasant shock; the progress made by some of her students was a pleasant outcome. Do Ferguson-Florissant taxpayers really want to keep spending money on a losing argument?