Chicago Public Schools officials are investigating a series of videos showing a dean at Whitney Young Magnet High School making racially charged comments deemed “disturbing” by a district spokesman.
One video recorded by a student and posted to Instagram captures Dean of Students John Fanning suggesting a defense of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in a gated Florida community in 2012.
“I’m just going to ask this question: Was [Trayvon] or was he not on private property?” Fanning says in the video.
Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder charges in the case, but it still sparked questions about the state’s controversial “stand your ground” law, spurring protests across the country.
A comment on that video says the debate was prompted by “an altercation between students, one who was not black using a derogatory term towards black people.”
In a statement from the organizers of The Real Whitney Young Movement, a group comprised of students at the school, they say while pleased that there is a conversation happening concerning the videos “we feel that these problems in our school can be mended.”
“We feel that our dean spoke from a place of ignorance because he was not knowledgeable about certain aspects that play into the problem with what he said,” the statement reads in part. “We feel we can provide him with the knowledge about how his comments were insensitive to a group of his students.”
The statement goes on to say the movement wants to “pursue a restorative method, instead of an unforgiving one.” That means not seeking Fanning’s termination, but taking the opportunity to teach and learn from each other.
Another Whitney Young student, who asked to remain anonymous, said the videos don’t show the full scope of Fanning’s conversation. Fanning, whom the student called a “fixture of the school community,” plays devil’s advocate in his class and the student said they and others believe that he was “simply doing this and these students are taking it out of context.”
CPS spokesman Michael Passman said a review of the matter is “underway.”
“The employee conduct in these videos is disturbing and in no way represents the supportive school environments that educators have created throughout the district,” Passman said.
In another video, a student says it’s disrespectful for non-black people to use the N-word, just as it would be disrespectful for non-queer people to use the word “queer.”
Fanning replies, “So you can use the term paddywagon?” referring to a term that is derogatory toward the Irish. The student replies they have never used the word, and Fanning replies “You’ve never used that term? Never?”
Fanning comments in the video that words either are derogatory or they aren’t, regardless of who’s using them.
“This is how our administration addresses situations of discrimination that we bring to them,” one video caption reads. “They try to turn it around on us and act like it is not a big deal. This is why racists get so far in the world and get to decide our fates as justices, police officers, and presidents.”
Fanning has also taught English and history at Whitney Young since 1999, and he previously coached the school’s swimming and water polo teams, according to a faculty biography. He did not respond to messages seeking comment.