It was the sort of spectacle one might expect on April Fool’s Day. Outfitted head to toe in white sheets to resemble the Ku Klux Klan, five students at Jefferson Junior High School in Oceanside paraded around campus during a lunch break, a spoof they felt would befit the holiday.
The prank prompted little more than a tittering of amusement among most pupils at Jefferson, a racially mixed campus of 800 students. The flowing sheets, after all, could not conceal the fact that one of the young marchers was black and two others were Latino.
But when news of the antic trickled out to the big world outside the junior high, not everyone was amused. Several leaders of the city’s large black community expressed outrage over the incident, noting that it had been less than a decade since members of the real KKK had marched in Oceanside in a wayward display of white supremacy.
Within days, local newspapers picked up on the story and, soon after, television crews were tromping along the hallways at Jefferson, some of them airing reports that featured footage of cross burnings by the Klan in the South.
Eager to defuse “a highly volatile situation,” the North County branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People urged that Nancy Beckett, the teacher who allowed her students to come to school April 1 dressed like a pint-sized contingent of the KKK, be transferred to another campus in the Oceanside Unified School District.
There was only one problem, school officials said. Nancy Beckett, they said, is not the sort of teacher who deserves such a fate.
Named co-teacher of the year by the students and faculty at Jefferson Junior High School last year, Beckett is known as an innovative, caring instructor, the kind who works hard to expand the educational horizon for her students beyond the three R’s.
Moreover, she is a teacher imbued with a deep sensitivity to the problems of prejudice, according to her colleagues. In a cruel twist of irony, it was Beckett’s very efforts to enlighten her pupils about the evils of racial discrimination that prompted her class to come up with the April Fool’s Day gag as a way to ridicule the Klan.
“I’ve seen people who are racist, and she’s far from it,” said Jefferson Principal Mike Walker, who is black. “A lot of teachers wouldn’t even acknowledge that racism exists. Nancy acknowledges it and is attempting to do something about it. Yet she is the one who has now been cast in a bad light.”
Though Walker gave the teacher a verbal reprimand for the incident, he and other district officials have stood solidly behind Beckett as opposition has mounted, saying the episode has been blown out of proportion by the media and members of the public unfamiliar with the facts of the matter.
‘We Could Learn’
“Certainly, she shouldn’t have allowed that kind of thing to happen,” said Bibs Orr, a longtime school board member. “Still, I can’t help but think that perhaps these students are a lot smarter than us adults. They can take the Ku Klux Klan and treat it as a joke. Maybe we could learn something from the kids. They can say to the Klan ‘We’re not afraid of you. We think you’re a big farce.’ ”
Beckett, meanwhile, has been publicly humiliated. She has agonized over the incident, apologizing to her students, the school staff, district administrators, the NAACP. She has received questioning phone calls from parents. She has even stopped writing checks at the grocery store, for fear that her identity will be revealed.
“It has not been a good April,” Beckett said during a recent interview at the junior high school. “Public humiliation is not something any of us enjoy. But my main concern is to not have anything disruptive to the school.”
A widow, Beckett has been a teacher for more than two decades, instructing students in public schools, the private sector and at a university in Brazil. She began teaching in Oceanside in 1984 as a substitute but was soon offered a full-time job teaching English communications to students reading below grade level, as well as art and photography.
As part of the curriculum for her communications class this year, Beckett and her students took on the topic of prejudice. To help spark discussion, the teacher recently showed her pupils a videocassette of the award-winning film “Places in the Heart,” which features a sequence involving a KKK attack on a black character.
For many of the students, it was their first exposure to the Klan. And the film had a profound impact. During a discussion and a writing assignment, they expressed blanket outrage that such a racist organization exists, Beckett said.
With April Fool’s Day approaching, the students in the class began talking about concocting some sort of gag. One black youngster broached the idea of dressing up like the Klan as a way of lampooning the white-cloaked group, Beckett said.
“They wanted to mock something they felt was very despicable,” the teacher recalled. “During our discussions, they wanted to know what they could do to get rid of the Ku Klux Klan. They felt impotent against it. To parody it was the most they could do.”
Though the entire class originally agreed to take part, only five of the students brought sheets to school April 1. One girl’s mother refused to allow her to cut holes for her eyes, so she wrapped the sheet around her face. Only one youth placed the initials of the Klan on his sheet. But below the letters KKK, the student wrote another message: “Hit Me.”
At the urging of students, Beckett allowed the five, sheet-covered pupils to parade outside the classroom and up to the principal’s office at the beginning of the lunch break. The short march took 10 minutes.
When Princiapl Walker saw the group heading up the hallway, he ordered them back to their classroom and later went to talk with Beckett about the incident.
After Beckett told the him the reasons behind the display, Walker admonished her for not getting his OK before undertaking an activity that could be taken as an insult by pupils or teachers at Jefferson, where more than 60% of the student body and 13 of the 41 faculty members are minorities.
Complaints Roll In
Within a day, Walker received the first of about half a dozen complaints from parents. Soon the newspapers and television stations were calling. A visit from the NAACP followed. What had begun as an April Fool’s joke was taking on a meaning far beyond that intended by its youthful perpetrators.
“In the context of Nancy’s classroom, where all the students knew the message of the joke, it was OK,” said Dan Armstrong, the district’s press spokesman. “Once it left the context of the classroom, where things are taken on face value and no one could be expected to understand what those kids were saying, it was a bad decision.”
On April 3, Walker got on the school’s public address system, explaining the situation to the student body and offering an apology. Later that day, both Walker and Beckett apologized personally to the school staff during a meeting.
A week later, however, the Rev. Thomas W. Davis, president of the NAACP’s North County branch, convened a press conference, calling for district officials to transfer Beckett to another school. Davis said such an action would be “in the best interest of the students, the community, the school and the teacher” to diffuse what had becoming a troubling situation.
Moreover, Davis said the incident at the junior high school, “be it intentional or
unintentional, has kindled probable arousal of racial disharmony.” Finally, he said the episode pointed to a root insensitivity to black culture within the school district’s curriculum. Davis could not be reached for further comment.
A ‘Judgmental Error’
District officials responded to the NAACP request by stressing that no further disciplinary action was anticipated for Beckett. Even if district officials wanted to transfer the teacher, such an action could not be taken for punitive reasons, district spokesman Armstrong said.
“If we had on our hands someone we thought shouldn’t be in the classroom, we wouldn’t move her, we’d try to get her out of the classroom,” Armstrong said. “But that’s simply not the case here. Nancy is a good teacher who made a judgmental error.”
While funding cuts have stripped the district of the sorts of valuable ethnic awareness programs that proliferated during the 1970s, Armstrong said he feels the Oceanside schools in general--and Jefferson Junior High in particular--are illustrative of a happy cohesion among the various races.
“For a community of Oceanside’s size and ethnic diversity, I think our schools rank among the most harmonious,” he said.
Walker agreed, saying that anyone who pretends that the April Fool’s incident has stirred racial discord at Jefferson Junior High “just hasn’t been on this campus.”
“I’ve worked in schools where there (are) racial problems, but that’s not the case at Jefferson,” the principal said. “You go out on that schoolyard and you’ll see black kids and white kids and yellow kids all mixing together.”
Though the issue is still smoldering in the community, Walker said students at Jefferson have moved on to new topics. “I never even got one complaint from a student about this whole thing,” he said.
Meet with NAACP Monday
Beckett and district officials plan to meet with NAACP leaders on Monday to discuss the incident in detail.
“We want to meet with them,” Supt. Steven Speach said. “I think that, once the teacher explains her position, something can be worked out that will be agreeable to both parties.”
In addition, Beckett has sent a detailed, two-page letter to the NAACP in an effort to fully explain the episode and give her apologies. Beckett’s letter said she did not offer an explanation “in an attempt to defend or justify my actions. I deeply regret having allowed this to happen.”
Indeed, the teacher readily acknowledges she made a mistake by allowing her students to parade along the school’s corridors.
“It should have just stayed in the classroom,” she said, noting that she regrets having acquiesced to the desires of her students in a situation when she should have taken a tougher stance.
Moreover, Beckett said she would not have allowed the activity at all had she been aware that Oceanside had been the site of a Klan march in 1980.
“She was totally unaware of the activities of the KKK in this area,” Walker said.
Most district officials have accepted the fact that Beckett made a mistake. It is time now, they say, to move on.
“Poor judgment, yes. But don’t chop off her head,” said district Trustee Orr. “We all make mistakes. Let’s also look at what she’s teaching. She is teaching peace, a sort of peaceful coexistence among all races.”