In a perfect post-racism world, a high school science teacher creating a slideshow in which a photograph of a gorilla captioned “Monkey See” is followed by a photograph of four black students captioned “Monkey Do” wouldn’t be a problem. If racists never portrayed black people as apes or monkeys or gorillas maliciously, it wouldn’t be a scandal if beloved teachers did so thoughtlessly.
But Longwood High School exists in the real world, where history and the internet fester with memes implying black people are monkeys or apes or gorillas, not fully evolved, or fully human.
So the decision by Longwood science teacher Edward Heinrichs to use photos taken at the Bronx Zoo this way is unacceptable. The question is what the response of Heinrichs, the school district, the parents and the community ought to be. And the answer is not a $12 million federal lawsuit on the kids’ behalf or histrionic claims about the damage done by the photos. Neither is it the district trying to silence the kids or clamming up once the controversy became public.
The answer is a path forward for the Longwood community that combines compassion, common sense, education and growth.
Heinrichs, who has taught at the district for two decades, garnered high praise at a school board meeting last week from students, including some black and Latino ones, who described him as a wonderful teacher. John Ray, the attorney representing the four students, said even his clients liked their zoology teacher, who has in past years created almost identical slides with the same caption depicting only white students, or students of multiple races.
A beloved teacher did something extremely thoughtless. For a teacher, particularly in one of the most diverse school districts on Long Island, not thinking about how actions might affect people who’ve faced and continue to face serious discrimination is unacceptable. Considering such concerns is both his job and his moral responsibility.
And the school’s first reaction was reportedly abysmal. When one student who’d videoed part of the slideshow posted it online, he was told he would be suspended from school if he did not take it down. Since then, the Longwood school district released a statement saying “we must be more aware of the feelings of our multicultural population,” and under threat of a lawsuit, said it would not comment further.
Then there are the parents and their lawyer, Ray, who said the $12 million figure represents the emotional damage done to the four students and their potential loss of career earnings potential. That’s an overreach, as was the comment from one woman at a recent standing-room-only school board meeting where the incident was discussed: “What are we going to do for that student when they are 30 years old and have a flashback?”
The community won’t benefit if a dedicated but imperfect teacher is fired. The four children won’t benefit if they’re convinced they’ve been so victimized by this slur that they can’t expect to make a living. Taxpayers all over the state won’t benefit if the New York Schools Insurance Reciprocal group Longwood (and most Island districts) belongs to has to pay out millions. And the district’s students won’t benefit if the administration has to go into full defensive mode rather than be allowed to face what happened and address it.
There is an opportunity here for a teachable moment and a set of lessons about racism that could bind a cohesive and diverse community even closer together. But for that to happen, everyone involved has to refuse to take steps that could rip that community apart.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.