Dover Defends Plan To Retain 'KKK Jingle' Teacher Amid New Criticism From NAACP

Feb 5, 2019

Juan Cofield, head of the New England Area Conference of the NAACP, holds a press conference at Dover City Hall with other NAACP leaders from across the region.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Dover school officials say they won't heed renewed calls from regional NAACP leaders for a teacher at the center of a racist controversy to be fired.

Dover High School history teacher John Carver gave an assignment on the Reconstruction Era last fall that led students to sing a racist parody of Jingle Bells, including references to the KKK and murdering African-Americans.

The song was caught on video, and Carver was put on paid administrative leave.

School officials decided last month to let Carver resume teaching and coaching this fall after he undergoes racial bias training and completes a series of check-ins.

NAACP leaders from across New England decried that decision at a press conference at Dover City Hall Tuesday morning.

Juan Cofield is the head of the New England Area Conference of NAACP chapters, and he says not firing Carver will teach students the wrong lessons.

“The lesson is that one, the incident was not that bad,” Cofield says. “Two, the students' concerns and mental anguish don't really matter; three, that there are no real consequences for truly bad behavior.”

In an interview Tuesday afternoon with NHPR, school superintendent William Harbron defended the decision. He says it’s an effort to change school culture and heal long-term, rather than focus on short-term punishment.

“If we would create a system of fear because you make a mistake, then how do we cause adults to grow within the system and to become better educators and to really embrace the topic of racism and prejudice?” Harbron says.

"If we create a system of fear, then how do we cause adults to grow within the system and become better educators?" --William Harbron, Dover Schools Superintendent

“That’s what we’re trying to do, is to get people to embrace that topic and learn about it,” he says. “How does it impact students when you’re coming potentially from an attitude of white privilege and not even understanding what white privilege is?”

But John Reed, a former high school social studies teacher who heads up the Cape Cod NAACP, says retaining Carver plays into a political climate that emboldens prejudice, and will perpetuate that culture at New Hampshire schools.

“We need to make sure the sensitivity of every teacher, every educational support person, every administrator is in the best interest of both the community and the students,” Reed says. “It’s not for some people, but for all people.”

"THE SAME IGNORANCE" 

At least two people in the small audience at Tuesday’s press conference defended Carver, saying the NAACP wants him fired without all the facts in order, to placate people who have been offended.

Seacoast NAACP President Rogers Johnson calls that perspective “the same ignorance we’re fighting all over the state.”

He says they’re not trying to determine if Carver is or is not a racist. Instead, he says they feel Carver’s actions show poor judgment, and a callousness that makes him unfit to teach.

And Johnson says the district’s response is only the latest instance of the state’s educational system glossing over intolerance.

"It's all over the state. People just haven't recognized it, because we haven't talked about it,” he says. “You need to focus in on this, because this is everywhere now, and if we don't nip this in the bud, there's going to be hell to pay three, four years down the road."  

Dover Schools Superintendent William Harbron (in suit jacket, standing at left) addresses participants at a Dover High School diversity forum last month.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Johnson says he expects there will be funding for more teacher diversity training in the state’s new budget. Lawmakers begin negotiating on that plan next week.

Harbron, the Dover superintendent, says his district’s teachers were already a few months into their own new diversity training when the “jingle incident” occurred late last year.

Last week, as part of ongoing response, he says they signed a contract to receive federal equity training assistance with a “long-range” diversity education plan for students, faculty and staff.

“What we’re going to do is look at - what was this incident, and what are the goals that we want to establish out of that?” Harbron says, adding that the planning sessions will take place in March and April. “And then once the goals are established, what do we need to design to accomplish those goals?”

Harbron says they’re also working with local nonprofits and state diversity leaders on further community outreach this year.

Until now, the NAACP was part of their steering committee on those efforts – but Rogers Johnson says they won’t continue participating in the district’s work if Carver keeps his job.

"We're not going to validate your decision, we're going to fight you on this decision," he says. "And just for your knowledge, we're not going away. We're going to keep fighting."

PROGRESS AND ACCOUNTABILITY

Johnson and his colleagues also want more information about Carver, and how the district investigated after the video surfaced.

Harbron says most of those details are confidential because they relate to a personnel matter. But in general, he says the district interviewed Carver and his students about the incident, and had its lawyer review the findings to make sure they were “comprehensive.”

"If we don't nip this in the bud, there's going to be hell to pay three, four years down the road." --Rogers Johnson, Seacoast NAACP President

Harbron says they concluded that the interviews corroborated one another. He says Carver’s assignment was part of an approved U.S. history unit on Reconstruction – though he says the district “did not agree with how this particular [section] of this class was conducted.”

He adds that Carver will have to prove he’s made “progress” before he’s able to return to teaching and coaching in the fall. He declined to disclose details of Carver’s bias training, but says it will include check-ins, mentoring and monitoring to provide “accountability.”

“From my understanding and knowing Mr. Carver, he has committed himself to the plan,” Harbron says. “As we go through the plan, we’ll see what level of commitment there is.”  

But Johnson, of the Seacoast NAACP, says he’s concerned about that process.

"An individual who has not made a single utterance of remorse, contrition or even to say he’s sorry can go through any course to be rehabilitated and come out on the back end knowing what to say, when to say it and who to say it to, and not have an inkling of understanding of why he's doing it, other than to stay out of trouble."

Carver has not made any public statements since the video was posted late last year.

He’s taught and coached baseball at Dover High for at least 20 years, according to Harbron, after graduating from the school himself in the 1980s.

Carver will have been on paid leave for nearly eight months if and when he returns to teaching this fall.