A Virginia high school is divided this week after a chemistry teacher was suspended for using a George Floyd pun for a student quiz, with students of color saying they felt unsafe as a result of the casual reference and white students complaining that the entire incident has been overblown.
The quiz, given virtually on Tuesday, was part of a lesson on the periodic table of elements, reports ARLnow.com. “George Floyd couldn’t breathe because a police officer put his ____ George’s neck,” the fill-in-the-blank question read. The answer 10th-grade students at H-B Woodlawn in Arlington, Va. were expected to fill in: “neon,” a chemical element.
Screenshots were taken of the question by shocked students and their parents, who then went to school administrators. On Wednesday and Thursday, the school’s principal and Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Francisco Durán sent separate emails to families and staff apologizing for the incident.
“The content referenced the killing of George Floyd in an unacceptable and senseless way, which hurt and alarmed our students, staff, families, and the community,” Durán wrote. ‘The reference showed extremely poor judgement and a blatant disregard for African American lives.”
“The teacher has been relieved of classroom duties while an investigation related to this matter takes place,” the superintendent continued.
One student who shared the post on social media noted: “there was a bunch of white silence” when the question was shared with the class.
“White students were making excuses or seemed ‘too tired to talk about it’ shame on those people that’s disgusting.”
Another student, 15-year-old Sofia Miller, who was in the class at the time, told the Washington Post she was shocked at the question, which immediately called to mind the time her grandmother had police pull a gun on her while she was driving.
She confronted the chemistry teacher about the question. At first, he responded by saying he used the Floyd reference because it was something everyone could understand. But Sofia pushed back, and the teacher agreed to change the wording of the question.
“Athletes protesting for Black Lives Matter & Racial Justice put a ____ the ground at the beginning of a game,” a later version of the question read, according to the Post.
A majority of the students (just under 58 percent) at H-B Woodlawn are white, according to data kept by Arlington Public Schools. Meanwhile, only 4.4 percent are Black, well below the 11 percent average across all APS schools, ARLnow.com notes.
Students who spoke to the Post said that there’s been a backlash to the teacher’s suspension from some of their white classmates, who argue that the pun wasn’t offensive and have started campaigning to save the teacher’s job.
These efforts elide the deeply personal pain students like Sofia experienced when they saw a Black man—one who died a violent death at the hands of the state—reduced to a topical reference on a chemistry assignment.
“It hurt that I was there to learn, and I had to see that, and I had to call out a grown man who thought that would be okay,” Sofia told the Post. “I just wanted to learn about chemistry. I’m there to learn, I’m there to feel safe, and I just didn’t.”