The Kankakee School Board unanimously voted Monday to terminate first-grade math teacher John Donovan after several students recorded him calling a black student the n-word, sparking outrage among students and families in the Illinois school district .
On October 20, a video of the incident secretly recorded by multiple students in the class showed Donovan getting into an argument with a 15-year-old student in the class, while a second video showed the latest incident between the two. Online show the teenager questioned his teacher for allegedly throwing books at him in September.
Dr. Genevra Walters, superintendent of the Kankakee School District, told CNN that the school’s principal, human resources department, and herself were unaware of the book-throwing incident before the recent clashes between students and teachers. She also said the school district “doesn’t have any information that the book is associated with students.”
The teen’s mother, Geraldine Nelson, said the school’s vice-principal left her a voicemail after the September incident, saying the teacher would apologize to her son for throwing the book gave him. When questioned by CNN, Walters said the assistant principal shared with his mother information from the teen’s report with administrators, but Walters said she didn’t know if a voicemail was left.
In the video, the student can be seen starting to leave the classroom, but before the student leaves, Donovan refers to him as a “f**king n***er.” There was laughter from the class, and Donovan shrugged and said, “I’m going to lose my job anyway.”
Donovan reportedly kicked the student out last month for playing with his phone in class.When the teen started leaving without picking up his book, Donovan threw it at him and hit him in the leg, his family’s lawyer said at a school board meeting.
Geraldine Nelson told CNN she was disappointed when she first found out that teachers were using racial slurs when her son, not school administrators, called her.
The teen told CNN that there had been no incident between him and the teacher, and said he reported the book-throwing incident “multiple times” to school administrators.
“If teachers are willing to … throw things at students, who knows what they’re willing to do,” family attorney Kevin O’Connor told CNN.
“There’s no reason to say that word, especially to a 15-year-old,” the teen’s mother told CNN affiliate WBBM. O’Connor told CNN he is referring the two incidents between the teen and the teacher to local prosecutors for a criminal investigation, but is still gathering information about the encounter.
Walters formally recommended that the school board terminate Donovan on Monday “for the use of racial profiling against an African-American male student,” board records show.
Regarding the incident earlier in September, the teenager’s lawyer said the book hit the teenager in the leg. Walters said the school district is also now investigating the book-throwing incident and why administrators weren’t aware of it sooner.
Once school officials learned of the video of Donovan’s use of racial slurs against teens, Donovan was escorted out of the school and placed on immediate paid leave pending a full investigation, according to Walters’ initial statement.
The video sparked outrage among the district’s parents. They immediately called for the teacher to be fired before social media brought the post to a national audience. Walters told CNN that the district must first suspend Donovan while it investigates, and cannot fire him, as some community members want.
“We must give due process to students and teachers, and we must follow the Illinois School Code when we terminate a licensed teacher,” Walters told CNN.
CNN has reached out to Donovan for comment.
“I was scared, nervous,” the 15-year-old told WBBM, adding that no one of any race used the word for him.
Nelson said her son is still dealing with the incident but has returned to school. Although her son is back in school, Nelson said she is considering having her son take online classes.
According to U.S. News’ 2022 Best High School Rankings, Kankakee High has a black enrollment rate of about 44 percent.
Superintendent Walters also said mental health issues and teacher shortages have plagued public education, and while this has been frustrating to all involved, “the root causes of the problems must be addressed in a systematic way.”
She said it was important for students to see teachers who looked like theirs and shared similar life experiences to avoid similar incidents in the future.
After initial public outrage, the school district released a statement on Facebook in response to “inaccurate information” and criticism of the government’s handling of the incident. Walters said she understands the outrage, but the public should know that Donovan was only paid for two days before the school board acted on the termination recommendation.
Walters said that prior to this incident, “other things were happening to many different people” as students and teachers alike went through mental health struggles coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic. But according to Walters, “it’s just the most egregious example we’ve had in a while.”
In a written statement to CNN, Kankakee School Board Chair Barbara Wells said: “The entire board is appalled, especially our African-Americans… He has shamed himself and everything that teaching stands for. Shame.”
Wells added that the board will soon begin hosting community forums to promote healing and reconciliation in the community.
After the incident caused an uproar, Superintendent Walters visited students at the school. Walters said she wanted to personally make sure the students were in a good mood following the incident. She said the different groups of students she spoke with were “all surprised” at the use of racial slurs and did not expect to hear teachers refer to students in this way.
Walters said the laughter heard by the students in the video was the result of students saying they were nervous and shocked. “They couldn’t believe it,” Walters said.
After the board formally fired Donovan, the family’s attorney told WBBM that this was just the first step and that the district should do more to protect Nelson after the initial incident in September.
“I want everyone who knows about this – whether it’s the vice-principal or the principal or some of those board members – I want them to come to the negotiating table and find out what they know; why when he was beaten by this teacher throwing a book When they didn’t call the police?Why didn’t they call DCFS [Department of Children and Family Services],” attorney O’Connor said.