Archived: Iowa Teacher Asked Black Student to Address Him as 'Master'

By Albert Lin

An Iowa teacher who told a high-school senior to call him “Master” is still employed by the school district, and the student’s mother is demanding to know how he was disciplined.

Jabre White, a senior at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, said that during a May economics class, teacher Shawn McCurtain told students to head downstairs for a test. “Yes, sir,” White replied. McCurtain’s retort: “You meant to say, “Yes, sir, Master.”

While allegations such as these frequently can be reduced to he said, he said, that is not the case here. According to emails that White’s mother, Nicholle White, forwarded to the Des Moines Register, Vice Principal Joseph Blazevich investigated the incident and confirmed that McCurtain made the comment, writing that McCurtain “was very remorseful.”

Des Moines Public Schools officials also do not deny that McCurtain made the comment. “To put it mildly, it was wrong in every way you look at it,” spokesperson Phil Roeder told the Register.

However, Blazevich said that he could not reveal how McCurtain was disciplined because personnel matters are confidential, although Roeder confirmed that McCurtain is still employed by the district.

Nicholle White reached out to the school board to no avail, and she said she plans to contact the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and the NAACP. She believes McCurtain needs diversity training and that the incident should result in more than a written reprimand in his file. Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code does protect personnel matters, but another chapter makes public the written decisions of the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners. Roeder said that White could file a complaint with that board, but it could take months for a resolution.

White said that McCurtain called her to apologize, saying that he meant the comment to be humorous, but she didn’t find him sincere.

“The incident raises questions about what kind of training educators are getting, especially since we just got another report about Black students doing poorly in Iowa,” said State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad, who runs a nonprofit where both Nicholle and Jabre White volunteer.

About 54 percent of Roosevelt students are white, while 22 percent are Black and 11 percent are Latino. A Des Moines Public Schools news release says that of the districts 32,000 students, 55 percent are from underrepresented groups—yet only 6 percent of the district’s teachers are nonwhite.

Jabre White, who was given the school’s Wanda Everage Award as the senior who best “embodies qualities of respect and responsibility to Roosevelt,” will attend Iowa State University in the fall.

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