The Albuquerque public school district is apologizing for a teacher who allegedly cut one Native American student's hair during class and called another by a racial slur.
"It breaks my heart," said Superintendent Raquel Reedy at an Albuquerque Public Schools board meeting on Wednesday. "It truly saddens me so much to think that these students, that any of our students, may feel disrespected or unappreciated or unaccepted."
The incident happened at Cibola High School on Halloween, when teachers and students were dressed in costume.
Students say their English teacher, Mary Eastin, was dressed up as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, a 19th century figure who practiced occult and conjuring acts.
According to a letter sent from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico to Superintendent Reedy in November, Eastin started the class by handing out marshmallows to students who answered her questions correctly, and dog food to those who didn't.
Then, the teacher confronted a Native American student who was wearing her hair in braids.
According to the ACLU, Eastin asked the student if she liked her braids. When the student said she did, the teacher picked up a pair of scissors and cut off about three inches of the student's hair.
Eastin called out another Native American student who had fake blood on her face as part of her Little Red Riding Hood costume. McKenzie Johnson, a junior, says her teacher noticed fake blood on her and asked if she was a "bloody Indian."
On Monday, Albuquerque Public Schools said "the employment relationship between APS and the teacher involved in the incident at Cibola High School was severed." Albuquerque Public Schools and the district's police department did not respond to NPR's request for comment. Eastin, through a relative, declined to comment.
KRQE News 13 reported that the school district's police department has completed its investigation into the incident and reported their findings to the Second Judicial District Attorney's Office.
Michael Patrick, a spokesman for the District Attorney's Office, released the following statement to KRQE News 13:
"This behavior is completely unacceptable, however, based on preliminary information, it does not appear to meet the necessary elements for criminal prosecution. We will reach out to the relevant agency to request additional information before making a final decision."
When Shannon Johnson, McKenzie's mother, heard about what had happened to her daughter, her first reaction was shock. "How can this be happening in this day and age, especially to my daughter?" Johnson told NPR.
Johnson says her daughter trusted Eastin, who she said had made an effort to incorporate Native American history into her lesson plans.
She said the incident has changed the way her daughter views grown-ups.
"She's being really particular in her communications with adults now," said Johnson. "She says, 'Mom, now I realize it's not about their titles or how much they think they know; it boils down to their character.' "
In addition to being McKenzie's mother, Johnson works for the school district and was recently moved into a position designed to help prevent things like this from happening to Native American students.
"Ironically, this was a customized position," said Johnson, who explained that her job was created in response to a lawsuit, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico, which revealed the state had failed to provide low-income students and students of color, particularly Native American students, with the educational opportunities required by the state's constitution.
"They know that the Native population is severely underserved statewide," said Johnson. "I'm supposed to be giving support, resources, and tools to teachers who work with Native American students."
The decision to let Eastin go came in a backlash from students and parents. In early November, students protested outside Cibola High School when the teacher was put on paid leave. The Albuquerque Journal photographed students holding signs that read "you can't cut my culture," "braids are beauty" and "support our indigenous students."
The president of the Navajo Nation, Russell Begaye, also responded to the incident in a statement, calling it a "cultural assault."
"Our Native youths should not have to endure this kind of behavior, especially in the classroom," Begaye said at a New Mexico Indian Education Advisory Council meeting. "We will hold the teacher, the school and the district accountable for these actions, and we demand recourse."