The Kankakee School Board voted Monday unanimously to terminate first-year math teacher John Donovan after several students recorded him calling a Black student the n-word, sparking outrage from students and families in the Illinois school district.
Videos of the incident, secretly recorded October 20 by multiple students in the classroom, show Donovan engaged in an argument with a 15-year-old student, in front of the class and a second video of the recent incident between the two posted online shows the teen questioning the teacher for allegedly throwing a book at him in September.
Kankakee School District Superintendent Dr. Genevra Walters tells CNN that neither the school’s principal, its human resources department nor herself knew about the book-throwing incident prior to the most recent confrontation between the student and teacher. She also said the district does “not have any information that the book made contact with the student.”
The teen’s mother, Geraldine Nelson, says the school’s assistant principal left her a voicemail after the September incident saying the teacher would be apologizing to her son for throwing the book at him. When asked by CNN, Walters says the assistant principal shared information from the report the teen made with administrators with his mother, but Walters says she is unaware if a voicemail was left.
In the video, the student can be seen starting to exit the classroom, but Donovan calls him a “f**king n***er” before the student leaves. Laughter is heard from the class, and Donovan shrugs and says, “I’m losing my job anyway.”
Donovan reportedly kicked the student out last month for being on his cell phone during class. When the teen began to leave without picking up his books, Donovan threw a book at him and hit him on the leg, his family’s attorney said at a school board meeting
Geraldine Nelson tells CNN she’s disappointed she first found out about the teacher using the racial slur when her son called her instead of from school administrators.
The teen tells CNN there were no prior incidents between him and the teacher and says he reported the book throwing incident “multiple times” to school administrators.
“If a teacher is willing to … throw something at a student, who knows what they’re willing to do,” Kevin O’Connor, an attorney for the family, told CNN.
“There’s no excuse for saying that word, especially to a 15-year-old,” the teen’s mother told CNN affiliate WBBM. O’Connor tells CNN he is referring both incidents between the teen and teacher to local prosecutors for criminal investigation but is still gathering information about the encounters.
Walters formally recommended that the school board terminate Donovan on Monday “due to the use of a racial slur towards an African American male student,” board records show.
Regarding the earlier incident in September, the teen’s attorney says the book hit the teen in his leg. Walters says the district is now also investigating the book-throwing incident and why administrators were not made aware of the incident sooner.
Once school officials were made aware of the video of Donovan using a racial slur towards the teen, Donovan was escorted off school grounds and immediately placed on paid leave pending a full investigation, according to the initial statement from Walters.
The video sparked outrage amongst parents in the school district. They immediately called for the teacher to be fired before social media brought the post to a national audience. Walters tells CNN the district had to suspend Donovan first while they conducted their investigation and could not just fire him as some community members wanted.
“We have to give the student and the teacher due process, and we have to follow the Illinois school code when we’re terminating a licensed teacher,” Walters told CNN.
CNN has reached out to Donovan for comment.
“I felt afraid, nervous,” the 15-year-old teen told WBBM, adding that nobody of any race had ever called him that word.
Nelson says her son is still processing the incident but has returned to school. Despite her son’s return to the school, Nelson says she’s considering allowing her son to take online classes.
Kankakee High School has a Black enrollment of about 44%, according to U.S. News 2022 Best High School Rankings.
Superintendent Walters also said that mental health issues and faculty shortages have plagued public education, and though this is disheartening for everyone involved, “the root of the problem must be addressed in a systemic way.”
She says it’s important for students to see teachers that look like them and share similar life experiences in order to avoid incidents like this in the future.
Following the public’s initial outrage, the school district posted a statement on Facebook responding to the “inaccurate information” and critiques of the administration’s handling of the incident. Walters says she understands the outrage, but the public should know that Donovan was only paid for two days before the school board acted on the termination recommendation.
Walters said that before this incident, there were “other things going on with a lot of other different people” due to the mental health struggles that both students and faculty experienced coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic. But this, according to Walters, “was just the most egregious example of what we’ve been going through for some time.”
In a written statement to CNN, Kankakee School Board President Barbara Wells said, “The entire board was horrified, especially our members of African American descent … He disgraced himself and he disgraced everything that teaching represents.”
Wells added the board would soon begin holding community forums to promote healing and reconciliation in the community.
Superintendent Walters visited students at the school following the uproar about the incident. Walters says she wanted to personally make sure the students were okay emotionally after the incident. She said the diverse group of students she spoke with “were all surprised” that the racial slur was used and would not have expected to hear a teacher refer to a student in that way.
Walters says that the laughter heard by students in the video was a result of students saying they were nervous and shocked. “They just couldn’t believe it,” Walters said.
After the board officially terminated Donovan, the family’s attorney told WBBM that this was only the first step and that the school district should have done more to protect Nelson after the initial incident in September.
“I want everybody who knew about that incident – whether it’s the assistant principal, the principal, or some of these board members – I want them called to the table to find out what they knew; why they didn’t call the police when he was battered by this teacher by throwing a book at him; why they didn’t call DCFS [Department of Children and Family Services],” said attorney O’Connor.