Students from western Iowa’s Denison High School walked out of their classes in protest Tuesday morning, calling for an outside investigation into racism and diversity issues in the school. This comes after Denison Community Schools placed a teacher on leave for using a racial slur in class discussions last week.
In a recording that was shared on social media, Denison High teacher Crystal Holt explained she first used the N-word in an earlier class while describing what was said by a defendant in a death penalty case from the 1990s. According to a student who was present, the recording came from a discussion in another teacher’s classroom, when Holt was brought in to respond to students’ concerns stemming from her initial use of the slur.
“If you understand the context, you can have that discussion and use that and understand that,” Holt said in the recording. “I never called a person that word, but you can use that word in context.”
In the recording, Holt uses the N-word and an anti-gay slur, and repeatedly defends her use of these words while several students object.
“Was a student called that name?” Holt asks. Several students can be heard saying, “No, no.”
“Can you use it in the historical reference of what was said?” Holt asks. “No, no, you can’t,” several students respond.
“You guys, this is called political correctness bullcrap,” Holt said. “This is called political correctness. It is not politically correct to erase history. If I can’t say what was testimony, and if you’re not mature enough to handle it, you are trying to rewrite history with political correctness.”
A large group of students on Tuesday filled a grassy area near the school’s driveway after walking out of classes. They circulated a petition calling for an evaluation of the high school from an outside source. Some held up signs denouncing racism. They chanted things like, “We want results!” and, “We want justice!”
“We are walking out simply to show that we want change in our school system,” said Christopher Espino, a senior who said he was in the second class where Holt was recorded defending her initial use of the N-word. “The next thing we want is justice! What we want is a change in our policies and change in how we handle racism and derogatory terms used in our school.”
Espino said he is not asking for Holt’s firing.
“I have no hatred in my body towards Mrs. Holt, and neither do a lot of these people here,” he said.
Some students held up signs calling for her firing.
Senior Joel Bonilla said he was in the second class where the word was used. Denison, he said, is a very diverse community and the use of the word is unacceptable.
“We have African Americans, we have Hispanics, we have Asians, we have a large multi-diverse town and population. And it just looks bad that the school has been doing this for too long and it's just not okay,” Bonilla said. He said there have been other "racial issues going on here and there" in the school.
Denison Community Schools Superintendent Michael Pardun and Denison High Principal Dave Wiebers came out to talk to the students during the walkout. They asked the students if they were ready to move on with the school day. Members of the media asked Pardun about the students’ calls for an external investigation.
“It’s an internal investigation at this stage,” said Pardun.
Crystal Holt is married to state Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison. On his Facebook page, Rep. Holt wrote, “Crystal is under attack for simply answering her student’s questions at school.”
Rep. Holt wrote his wife was explaining a death penalty case in which the defendant used a pejorative term. Crystal Holt confirmed this to KDSN Radio Monday.
“I asked why they put ‘hate crimes’ on their board,” Crystal Holt said. “And one of the students said: ‘Because in the reading it said he used pejorative terms.’ And another student in that group said: ‘What does pejorative mean?’ And I said it means derogatory. And the student said: ‘What does derogatory mean?’And I said it means terms that are not nice to race and continued trying to explain that. And I said he used the N-word and then I said he used the word.”
Denison has a population of more than 8,000, nearly 50 percent of which is Latino. According to the Iowa Department of Education, Denison High’s student body is about 40 percent white and and 54 percent Latino.
Denison Community Schools announced the internal investigation in a Facebook post last Friday.
“We take the issue of racism extremely seriously and regret and apologize for any impact this has had on anyone,” reads a post on the district's Facebook page. “We are conducting an internal investigation into the matter, and we will work in concert with our students, families and faculty to resolve the situation.”
Denison School Board hears from the community
People packed the school board meeting later Tuesday. Many showed support for Holt.
More than 20 people made public comments, including current and former students who shared stories about Holt and how she’s been there for them. Some parents praised her. Others thought the school district should consider how it teaches its students about racism.
Former student Monica Lara told the board Holt went to the authorities for her after she was sexually abused by a teacher. Lara said she felt “attacked and alone."
"However, Mrs. Holt was one of the few people who believed in me and uplifted me throughout the long legal process," Lara said. "Because of her help, there is a man who will no longer be able to abuse another child in a school setting, and a girl who got to reclaim her life back."
Senior Christopher Espino, who had also spoke at the walkout earlier Tuesday, repeated to the board that he did not want Holt to lose her job.
Rhonda McGregor, who also praised Holt during the meeting, told Iowa Public Radio she has known Holt for 12 years.
"She is nothing but an encourager. She is inspiring. She brings a lesson to life," McGregor said. "She engages kids. She has taught me so much about just being able to interact."
A member of the school board said, "we will continue our investigation into the matter and anticipate a conclusion soon."