A math teacher at Lakeland Union High School has been disciplined by the school’s administrators after they received a complaint concerning a math assignment that a Native American student had brought home over the weekend of Sept. 29.
The teacher, Rick Vesbach, told The Lakeland Times he was suspended for two days because of the incident and wrote letters of apology to Lac du Flambeau Tribal President Tom Maulson, the Lac du Flambeau director of education, and personally apologized and met with the guardian of the student who initially complained to LUHS officials.
“She [the guardian] was of course upset, but understood the positive impact I have had on students and she said she wanted me to be back in the classroom,” Vesbach said. “I also apologized to the students Wednesday when I returned to the classroom.”
Vesbach said his students told him they knew he was not the kind of person that has been depicted in the incident and some have told him “everybody makes a mistake.”
The controversy began after students were assigned a page of math problems for which the corresponding answer provided a letter that would help them complete a message on the bottom of the assignment. A question at the top of the page asked: “What happened after Chief Shortcake died?” When the students completed the message using the code from the correct math answers it stated: “Squaw bury Shortcake.”
The term “squaw” is viewed by many Native Americans and others as an extreme insult.
One parent, who did not wish to be identified, called The Lakeland Times to complain and said the teacher had provided a “vicious, insulting and insensitive assignment for students.”
How it occurred
Vesbach said he took the assignment sheet from a booklet of supplementary materials for study on specific units of the textbook. Vesbach and Principal Jim Bouché both said the district has removed all copies of the booklet from school classrooms and they have been destroyed.
“I looked at only the math problems that were on the page,” Vesbach said. “There’s no way that if I had known what was on the [top and bottom of the] page that I would have given it to the students. I would have thrown it out immediately and I would not have let them see it.”
LUHS Superintendent Dr. Todd Kleinhans said “there’s no doubt that the assignment was an egregious insult and was extremely insensitive to Native Americans.
“Appropriate disciplinary action was taken,” Kleinhans said. “The teacher is back in the school today [Friday].”
Monday morning meeting
“I and Mr. Bouché received a complaint about the matter Sunday and right away at 7:15 Monday morning a meeting was held with the teacher,” Kleinhans said. “Quick and decisive action was taken over the matter after that discussion was held.”
Kleinhans said the district consulted with the student and the student’s guardian who complained about the assignment when they considered what type of discipline was to be ordered for the teacher involved. He said the district also consulted with the Lac du Flambeau education committee about the matter.
Vesbach in tears
Vesbach said that when he received an email from Bouché Monday morning detailing the complaint received about the math assignment he began to cry.
“I began to cry because I knew it would offend some students, students that I had worked so hard to develop relationships with,” Vesbach said.
“I in no way mean to minimize what happened. The entire community I’ve deeply offended and I am deeply sorry about that. There’s no way I can apologize enough.”
“This is a good teacher who had a serious lapse in judgment,” Kleinhans said.
“It’s safe to say the teacher was so absolutely absorbed in the math content of the assignment that he failed to look at the other content information that was present.
“We take this very seriously and acknowledge this was extremely insensitive and insulting and it will not be tolerated,” Kleinhans said.
According to Kleinhans, the district will use the incident as a learning opportunity for both students and staff to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.
“Over the last several years we feel we have improved and continue to improve our relationship with the local Native American community and their education committee,” Kleinhans said.
“We want to make sure we keep moving ahead and continue to improve upon what we have done at LUHS.
“We want to restate our commitment to our Native American community and want to reassure them something like this will never happen again at LUHS.”
Recorded lesson for Tuesday
Despite the fact he had been suspended for two days, Vesbach said that he recorded a lesson on Monday for Tuesday’s math class to be played for his students.
He said he did not want the students to miss the lesson that he would have taught on the second day of his suspension.
Joe VanDeLaarschot may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.