A black Sacramento-area teacher is fighting the school’s dismissal

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Rio Tierra journalism and history teacher Jordan McGowan, left, goes through the day's agenda during his journalism class Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Sacramento.

Rio Tierra journalism and history teacher Jordan McGowan, left, goes through the day’s agenda during his journalism class Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Sacramento.

Especially for the bee

A middle school teacher who cultivated programs for black students in the Twin Rivers Unified School District is fighting his firing, claiming he was unfairly punished for a one-off after-school incident with a student he was trying to help form the basketball team.

Jordan McGowan, a history teacher and basketball coach at Rio Tierra Junior High School, goes on to say that his firing fits a pattern he witnessed at the school, when he felt administrators were showing signs of being more cultural in discussions about civil rights and police shootings showed insensitivity.

As far as he knows, his dismissal came from an after-school practice with a black student, during which he practiced a common street basketball move of bouncing a ball off another player’s head.

“I’m getting fired for playing basketball the way black people play basketball in our own community. I’m getting fired for playing culturally appropriate basketball when those in power have little to no cultural connection to our community,” McGowan said. “This is just a microcosm of what I and other black people have experienced in Rio (Tierra) and throughout the district.”

McGowan has been on administrative leave since December 4th. The school board was scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to fire him. McGowan’s supporters planned to rally for him ahead of the vote.

McGowan has taught at Rio Tierra Junior High School since 2017. He is a boys’ basketball coach and serves as an advisor to the Black Student Union, as well as chairing the history and social sciences department.

He is greatly appreciated by former and current colleagues and students. He is affectionately called “Mr. Mac” on campus.

A school district representative declined to explain the reasons behind the decision to fire McGowan.

McGowan’s public characterization of issues he faced during an investigation suggests officials have pressed him on whether he used a racial slur when communicating with black students.

“Twin Rivers Unified does not comment on confidential personnel matters. Please rest assured that all employment matters will be handled with integrity and in accordance with all laws and our policies,” said Zenobia Gerald, Twin Rivers Unified School District, Director of Communications.

Leaving followed one-on-one game

McGowan told The Bee that he developed a “tough romantic relationship” with the student who allegedly complained about the street ball game.

A campus security officer called McGowan one day after school and asked if the student could go to the gym with McGowan for basketball tryouts.

According to a public statement from McGowan, he initially laughed and said to the campus security officer, “How does this little (n word) think he’s going to come to the tryouts if he didn’t come to my classes?”

The student overheard the conversation and responded by cursing McGowan, McGowan said.

McGowan took the student to the gym and invited him to play one-on-one for a spot on the team.

“My intention was to turn this into an educational moment. My intention was to bring this student in and redirect him in a cultural way,” McGowan said in a statement he released online.

McGowan wanted to teach the student to keep his hands on defense, and he performed a street basketball move called “off the heezy,” where the player with the ball bounces it off the defender’s head to use it for an open deflect shot.

The game was the first to score 3 points, each point counted as one, and he made the move three times, scoring a goal each time.

According to McGowan, the student never raised any problems with the plays.

McGowan said he received notice that the county was placing him on administrative leave within days of the game.

As the district’s investigation developed, McGowan wrote that human resources officials questioned his use of the n-word on campus, including whether he used the “r” at the end of the word.

Sophisticated programs for black students

McGowan has attempted to create empowering programs to support black students. He has unsuccessfully lobbied for the school to establish black history and hip-hop history courses.

After a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in May 2020, McGowan hosted a virtual forum for teachers, urging them to “decolonize” their classrooms.

He felt some administrators and parents have since been insensitive about dealing with black students, including asking “what made you happy today” after it was revealed that two Kentucky officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor, would not be prosecuted.

McGowan was frustrated that the school hired a diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator who was not black, despite requests for more teachers of color on campus.

And he said he was told to remove the posters of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, Kwame Ture and other similar characters.

Black students have expressed to McGowan that several teachers have been consistently racist toward them about discipline, policy enforcement, and microaggression.

students have their say

Current and former students plan to campaign for McGowan.

In an email to The Bee, Kaylene Pelayo, a sophomore and former student of McGowan, said she believes McGowan’s firing was a form of discrimination.

“Mr. McGowan is the support system that many of us don’t have at home, and someone that all students on campus can trust with (their) personal issues. He understood us in a way (that) white teachers could not ” said Pelayo. “His first offense isn’t worth firing. Other white teachers in Rio Tierra did far worse and can still teach there.”

Another former student, Seyven Peete-Shaver, told The Bee in an email that the punishment was “unnecessary” and “too harsh”.

He said McGowan is a caring and loving person who understands people deeper than they know.

“Jordan should not only draw a fair and lenient conclusion from the situation, but also be able to come back and teach in the classroom because his brand of genuine love and personality is more than needed in the teaching and learning environment,” said Peete Shaver.

This story was originally published Apr 26, 2022 2:10 p.m.

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Marcus D. Smith covers black communities for The Sacramento Bee. Marcus is a graduate of Texas Southern University in Houston. Marcus grew up in Sacramento and is looking forward to coming home to his passion for journalism.

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