Parents of nine freshmen at Cherry Hill High School East say an English teacher has been harassing and bullying their children, in part by making racially charged remarks.
District officials say they are investigating the allegations by the parents, who have submitted a complaint to school officials accusing Kimberly Real of creating a hostile educational environment.
During one vocabulary lesson in February, the parents allege, Real said to students, "What's so bizarre about a black man going to jail?"
Six parents raised the issue at a school board meeting Tuesday, asking members to add language to the district's anti-bullying policy regarding behavior by staff members. School officials said the policy already applies to staff.
Real, who is named in the complaint, which one of the parents shared with The Inquirer, did not respond to requests for comment.
Of the 11 students remaining in the honors class, nine are not white, said Susan Levy Warner, whose daughter is in the class. The class originally had between 21 and 25 students, according to the complaint.
The Cherry Hill School District student body is 65 percent white. Nearly 17 percent of students are Asian, while about 9 percent are African American and 8 percent are Hispanic, according to district statistics.
Warner said the parents do not know why other students were allowed to transfer while their children were not. A district spokeswoman referred a reporter to a policy on dropping classes and transfers. The policy says changes out of honors classes must be made during or shortly after the first marking period.
Other statements that troubled the parents related to gender - "If women were in charge of this world, we'd be a lot better off" - and to the intelligence level of the students.
Pointing to a female student, according to the complaint, Real said, "This girl isn't capable of writing."
She also told students, "A good essay shouldn't make me want to hurt myself or you," and, "I'm the best, you guys are stupid," according to the complaint.
Reviewing the statements, "some of them by themselves, you would say, this isn't so egregious," Warner said. Over time, however, repeated derogatory remarks have made students anxious and afraid, Warner said.
"They can't speak up. They can't ask questions. They're afraid of being publicly insulted," she said. "It's the collective insults that have created this ominous atmosphere."
Warner said she became concerned about Real's teaching style in February, after her daughter, who had been complaining about the class and acting anxious, broke down one night crying and said she had been offended by statements Real made in class.
Warner said she contacted Real about her concerns but was not satisfied with the response.
Another parent, Karlyn Williams, said she also reached out to Real, asking how to help her son, who had been struggling in the class.
Williams, who had been pushing her son to work harder, said Real told her he needed to ask for help.
Williams' son, however, told his mother he had already asked, she said. His grades, normally A's or B's, had dropped dramatically, and he told his mother he felt overwhelmed.
Williams said she became more concerned when she got a call from Warner several weeks ago and learned other children were struggling academically and emotionally.
"I didn't know all the other children were crying," she said. "That's when you know there's a problem."
As parents prepared to meet, Williams said, she asked her son what Real had done that upset him.
Her son said a student in the class had mentioned the O.J. Simpson case and called it atypical. He said Real responded, "What's so atypical about a black man being tried for murder?" Williams said.
Williams' son, who is African American, told his mother that he was hurt by the remark but didn't speak up.
"For me, that is crossing the line," Williams said.
She said she asked other parents whether their children had heard the statement, and "everyone confirmed that it was said."
"We're very careful," Williams said. "We make sure we're not putting ideas in their heads."
The parents contacted East principal John O'Breza on March 4. The school district received a formal complaint on March 13, said spokeswoman Susan Bastnagel.
The district's affirmative action officer - guidance director Jim Riordan - as well as high school and central administrators are investigating the complaint, Bastnagel said.
She would not address Real's employment status.
Martin Sharofsky, president of the Cherry Hill Education Association, the union that represents district teachers, said Wednesday that he was aware of the complaint. Asked whether the association was representing the teacher in an investigation, Sharofsky said, "I don't know that an investigation has been started."
Bastnagel would not comment on the time frame of the district's investigation.
In their complaint, parents asked the district to remove Real from the class for the rest of the year. They also asked for an independent assessment of the students' work and the instruction delivered to date.
Parents also asked the school board Tuesday to post the form required to report bullying allegations online; to clarify procedures for investigating the allegations; and to specify that staff are also subject to the district's anti-bullying policy.
School Board President Kathy Judge told the parents that the board would respond to their requests later.
The parents are looking for assurance that procedures exist to raise concerns about harassment by staff, Warner said.
"There's no clarity over how these kinds of issues are addressed," she said.
Contact Maddie Hanna at 856-779-3232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.