UPDATE 12/4: A teacher accused of targeting Native American students in an incident on Halloween resigned from her job with Albuquerque Public Schools, effective Friday, November 30.
Former Cibola High School teacher Mary Eastin confirmed on Tuesday that she chose to end her employment at the district.
APS spokesperson Monica Armenta said in an email Monday that the district is seeking expert assistance for cultural competency training and will seek public input on the training.
Dozens of people packed an Albuquerque Public Schools board meeting Wednesday night in support of a Native American high school student who says she and a classmate were the target of racist treatment by their teacher on Oct. 31.
On Wednesday night, junior McKenzie Johnson from Cibola High School stood at a podium and told six school board members about her Halloween day at school. She said she and her classmates entered Mary Eastin’s classroom to find it darkened, lit only by candles.
Eastin had a quiz for them, Johnson said, and when a boy got an answer wrong, she gave him dog food. "He refused, of course," recalls Johnson, "and she went after him with a box cutter, saying 'Are you sure you're not going to eat it?'"
The teacher then turned to a Native American student with her hair in braids, said Johnson. "Ms. Eastin said, "Do you like your braids?''"
At this point, Board Chair David Peercy interrupted Johnson as she spoke, trying to enforce a one-minute time limit on public comment. People in the audience yelled at him to let her speak.
Johnson continued, telling the board that Eastin asked the class "'Do you think scissors would do the trick?' And she just cut her hair," she said. "And the sound of cutting hair was like the sound of celery when you break it off."
Johnson said Ms. Eastin then turned to her and said "'Now what are you supposed to be? A bloody Indian?'" She says the class was stunned, and she was so furious she shook.
Johnson continued speaking for several more minutes, as even Peercy kept trying to cut her off. She said in the weeks since Halloween she and other Native students have been harassed by peers at school and online.
APS has said Eastin is on leave while the district investigates. She wasn’t at the meeting and has not presented her side of the story.
Maurus Chino, a parent and longtime Albuquerque resident, said treating the incident as a personnel issue is not enough. "If it was anybody else, any other ethnic group, a white person, Spanish, this would’ve been dealt with severely, and yet we’re still here speaking at a one-minute time limit."
Tony Padilla, an ethnic studies teacher at Rio Grande High School, said "because of this incident, APS collectively, as an institution, must now hang our heads in heads in shame, because incidents like this revisit hundreds of years of trauma."
About thirty people spoke in all. Many spoke of the violation as a physical assault, and emphasized the important role that hair plays in Navajo and other Native cultures.
As Board Chair Peercy announced the board would move on to the rest of the agenda, several young people called for the teacher to be fired.
"Listen, listen," responded Peercy. "The board does not fire particular people. The administration does that. And they will do what they need to do when the investigation is complete."
Superintendent Raquel Reedy was at the meeting but did not speak on the issue.
The protesters filed out of the board room and continued demonstrating just outside the doors in the tiled hallway.
After a while, Board Member Peggy Muller-Aragón, whose district includes Cibola High School. came out to hear from them. "I think that you felt that we weren't listening to you, and I am listening to you."
Community members expressed more pain and outrage. One young woman said the education system is to blame for erasing the narratives of Native people.
"It's because it’s not taught in schools that when these people grow up and become educators themselves," she said, "they perpetuate the same freaking systems. Every single Native student has had that experience, where they go into class and automatically feel discriminated against."
This all comes as New Mexico is under court order to reform its education system to better serve Native American students, among others.
Those gathered made it clear to Muller-Aragón that they expect the board to put this issue on the agenda for their District Equity and Inclusion Meeting next month.
The ACLU of New Mexico on Wednesday sent a letter to APS demanding immediate and long-term measures to protect the safety of Native American students.
Correction: This story has been edited to reflect that Mary Eastin chose to end her employment with APS, she was not "fired," as originally reported.
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