Shirley Bunn said something several months ago that has slowly been gaining notoriety, a notoriety that seems to be growing with time. She’s a math teacher at a junior high school in Arlington, Texas, and one morning early in the school year she ignored her better angels and crossed a line: she told one of her Latino students to “go back to Mexico.”
The incident has been widely reported; the specifics of the case are simple: Bunn, a 63 year-old teacher with 24 years of teaching experience, was handing out Title 1 forms during her morning advisory period. Title 1 is the federal program that provides money to schools to meet the needs of educationally at-risk students, specifically in reading, writing and math. The reported story says that one particular student, a boy identified only as R.F., began repeating “I’m Mexican,” as Bunn handed out the forms. And he apparently kept repeating that phrase until Bunn snapped. That’s when, supposedly out of frustration, she told him to go back to Mexico.
Granted, there is a long list of things she could have told the nagging boy, ranging from “stop saying that,” to “I heard you.” But she didn’t. And because of that she’s been out of the classroom and on paid administrative leave since September 30. The statement turned into an issue, and the issue into a controversy that won’t go away.
Bunn’s defenders — colleagues, parents and students alike — say her words may have been ill chosen, but they were not mean spirited. A report submitted by Arlington ISD investigators states:
When taken in the context of the moment, and the lack of intent for “go back to Mexico” to be a racially or nationally based pejorative remark, I find it was not a remark of an egregious nature.
It may not be egregious, but it remains a statement that should not be made by a veteran teacher to a student in a classroom. That much is undeniable. But neither is it deniable that the incident, in its simplest re-telling, lacks context. Here’s what we know, to fill-in the gaps:
- Bunn teaches algebra 1 and eighth grade math.
- She has twice been named teacher of the year.
- Her school, Barnett junior High, has a 29.5% Latino and 38.6% black enrollment.
- Almost half — 48.9% — of the students receive either a reduced or free lunch.
- Only 3% of the faculty have more than 20 years experience.
- Only three classroom teachers on the Barnett faculty roster have Latino surnames.
We can infer from this that the school where Bunn teaches is the type of school (minority enrollment, significant low income) that is targeted by the Title 1 program. We can also infer that with 24 years experience and almost one-third Latino enrollment, the teacher knew what she was doing. Reports have also surfaced that on one occasion, in a private conversation, Bunn referred to a group of disruptive boys as a “Mexican mafia.”
None of this, though, takes us any closer to knowing the intent behind the remark — and intent is key.
Telling a student to “go back to Mexico” is inexcusable, even if it was a momentary lapse of propriety, even if the intent was not malicious. And for that she’s been suspended. The question at the moment is whether Bunn should be allowed to return. The answer to that question is where the teacher’s intent comes into play.
I can safely say that there are few Latinos in the U.S. who haven’t, at some point in their lives, been told to “go back to Mexico.” Latinos understand, first hand, the egregious nature of those words. But even that doesn’t shine a light into the teacher’s intent. At best, she committed a severely insensitive act towards a student. At worst, she purposely hurled a racist insult to a student in her charge. It’s no wonder she’s been suspended for more than five months — the school district administrators don’t have an easy choice.
There is no good end to this story. The best thing that the administrators at the Arlington ISD can do is put an end to the problem and decide Bunn’s future, before the controversy grows too big to handle.