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July 13, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Our Town: A teachable moment Our Town: A teachable moment (July 13, 2005)

by Don Kazak

Letitia Burton, who teaches life skills at Palo Alto High School, received a shocking surprise in late April when she was going through notes that her students had dropped in her question box.

Burton, 53, was teaching a course segment on sexuality and she allowed her students to write questions anonymously rather than be embarrassed by asking them out loud during class.

One brought her up short: "I want to have interracial sex. Is that against the law? After all she is black ... and I don't want to get AIDS from the monkeys."

Burton, who is African American, was stunned and angered by the words.

"I really felt blindsided, that someone is taking a shot at me," she said, speaking softly and calmly.

She didn't sleep well that night, wondering what to do.

Burton has been a teacher for 21 years, the last 11 in the Palo Alto Unified School District. She could have ignored the racist comment in the note. She chose not to.

Instead, she made the note into a transparency for an overhead projector. She showed it to her students the next day -- all five classes, about 150 Paly sophomores, juniors and seniors.

"Some kids were appropriately appalled," she said. "Some were really angry."

But some students were angry at her for "making a big deal out of it," she said. That response "took me by surprise, so we talked about it.

"It was a teachable moment. I couldn't let it pass."

Burton was hurt by the note because she has worked hard to win the trust of her students and make her classes safe places where they can talk freely about their questions or concerns.

"Kids know me as pretty open, pretty fair, as a 'cool' teacher," she said. "They know how approachable I am."

She also gave graduating seniors a glimpse of star power this spring when she recruited her younger brother to give the baccalaureate assembly address -- her brother being actor LeVar Burton of "Roots" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation" fame.

Burton never found out who wrote the offensive note.

"Some kids thought I should do a handwriting analysis, but I don't know if I want to know," she said.

"If it was a joke, it was a bad joke. If it was thinly veiled racism, that person will be in for some unhappiness (later in life)."

When she showed the note to Paly Principal Scott Laurence, "It was like someone punched him in the stomach."

The episode will be used for diversity training this fall among Paly staff.

Yet Burton is concerned that what happened to her wasn't an isolated incident.

Deborah Sanderson, an African-American social studies teacher at Gunn High School, received 3,000 e-mails with racist subject lines in her school e-mail account last year.

Sanderson is one of just two African-American teachers at Gunn, while Burton is one of three at Paly.

Ugly incidents also include racist and homophobic graffiti at Gunn during the "day of silence" to recognize issues facing gay and lesbian students, and the defacing of a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. poster at Paly.

"There hasn't been this kind of anger and animosity (before)," Burton said.

But, she added, "It's easy for (white) people to turn a blind eye because they don't experience racism. I think some of that is affecting our students. Palo Alto is a pretty easy place to live."

She isn't discouraged by what happened. She sees the episode as a challenge.

"I want PAUSD to be everything it says it is," she said. "It is an excellent district, and it is beginning to look at issues of race and how race can impact a student.

"I want the district to live up to that, on all levels. And when I say the district, I mean not just the people at 25 Churchill but all the teachers, all the parents, all the students." There needs to be broad recognition that "we're all in this together to bring about the kind of place we say we want this to be."

Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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