CPS teacher told student who refused to stand for national anthem to ‘go back to your country,’ witnesses say

Students at Senn High School staged a sit-in Wednesday to protest the incident and the CPS response.

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Students at Senn High School hold a sit-in protest over a gym teachers alleged racist comments against a student.

Provided by Senn High School student

Students at Senn High School held a sit-in Wednesday in protest after a teacher allegedly told a student last month to “go back to your country” when she declined to stand for the U.S. national anthem during an assembly.

Four students at Senn, all seniors, said they heard a teacher tell the Latina student, who is a U.S. citizen, to leave the country if she didn’t want to stand for the anthem during a Hispanic heritage assembly Jan. 30 at the school.

Those students, who said they were inspired by civil rights leaders during Black History Month, said they decided to hold a sit-in at their school Wednesday to protest the pace of the administration’s response.

CPS has opened an investigation into the teacher’s alleged comments, which the district said would violate its anti-discrimination policy. CPS spokesman James Gherardi said in a statement that “we support the students who have peacefully raised their concerns.”

“CPS is committed to fostering learning environments that embrace and support all students, and the alleged actions of the teacher in question run counter to our beliefs and priorities as a school district,” Gherardi said.

Senn, located in Edgewater on the North Side, is one of CPS’ most diverse schools. Of the school’s 1,536 students, 42% are Hispanic, 24% are black, 17% are Asian and 13% are white. More than three out of four Senn students come from low-income families, and nearly 20% speak limited English.

Students told to stand

The students were in the school’s auditorium on the day of the incident when they were told by a speaker to rise for the national anthem.

Yésica Salazar, 17, said that when she and other students didn’t stand, two teachers came over to them and said they would need to leave if they didn’t.

Salazar, along with three other students interviewed by the Sun-Times late Wednesday, said they stayed seated for the anthem to protest U.S. immigration policies, anti-immigrant political rhetoric and police brutality.

One teacher then asked Tionda Cobb, 18, if she was eligible for CPS’ free and reduced lunch program, the students said. Cobb nodded yes. He then told her she should stand because people had died for the country, she said.

After Cobb left the auditorium, the teacher turned to Salazar and asked if her legs were broken. When she replied “no” and then stopped responding, the teacher told her that “I should go back to my own country if I didn’t want to stand,” Salazar recalled.

Salazar said she told the teacher she was born in the United States and was a citizen. They then argued, and she was later told to leave the auditorium, she said.

“I felt very offended because my parents have fought hard to be a part of this country,” Salazar said.

Shakira Chacon, 18, a U.S. citizen who moved to the United States from Costa Rica less than three years ago, and Naima Woods, 18, were particularly upset by the teacher telling Salazar to “go back to your country,” they said.

“When I heard that, that’s when I jumped in and said, ‘You don’t say that to a student — it’s disrespectful,’” Chacon said.

Given the “run-around”

Chacon said that after the assembly ended, she had talked to the teacher privately and said he apologized. However, she said, he has since claimed that he never said what they believe they heard.

“If he would admit it and apologize ... now I think he should be fired,” Chacon said.

The students said that despite meeting with Principal Mary Beck after the incident, they weren’t given updates on how the situation was being addressed.

“I felt like we were getting the run-around,” Salazar said.

Along with other students, they held the sit-in, which in part called for the teacher’s removal from the school. Video circulated online showed crowds of students sitting in a school hallway and chanting.

Chicago police said later Wednesday that a 15-year-old girl was arrested at the sit-in and charged with battery. Cops were called in when a school administrator tried to break up a fight between two girls, and a “55-year-old male victim was pushed by a 15-year-old offender, causing him to fall.”

A CPS spokesman didn’t respond to questions about whether any action was taken against the teacher. But the students who have accused the teacher said that he was seen at the school as recently as Tuesday.

Beck sent a letter to students Tuesday saying she was “concerned about a narrative that I have heard from several students, and I wanted to reach out to all of you to ensure there is clarity around this situation and who we are as a school.”

Beck said she’s proud that Senn has “built its identity on our diversity,” and went on to highlight the avenues students have to voice their opinions at the school. Beck’s letter did not, however, specifically mention the incident involving the anthem.

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