Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon has told educators the onus is on schools and teachers to provide a safe environment for their students after another example of a teacher using the n-word in a lesson.

The principal of private Auckland girls' school St Cuthbert's College has instructed staff "that the word is not to be spoken out loud again" after its use in a lesson prompted protests from some students and their families.

The St Cuthbert's case comes after a similar incident at Auckland's Lynfield College in June that resulted in the school vowing to never again use a word that represents "condensed generations of pain".

In that case, video of a student protesting a teacher's use of the word while reading from a text went viral, leading to Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon stating that the word should be "deleted" and vowing to contact the Ministry of Education to recommend a standard be applied across the sector, similar to codes that cover broadcasting.

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The most recent incident came last month, when a teacher at St Cuthbert's was leading a classroom discussion about white supremacy and black separatism.

The teacher quoted from African-American activist Malcolm X during the discussion and used the racial slur in full.

In a letter to the school's board, a parent of one of the girls in the class said they were "horrified and offended" by the use of the word.

The letter came after a meeting at the school between two families, the teacher and school principal Justine Mahon.

Speaking to the Herald, the parent who wrote the letter said their whānau were satisfied with the response of the teacher involved, saying they "appreciate the response of the teacher concerned who reflected upon her behaviour and offered an apology which we accept as genuine".

Civil rights leader Malcolm X. Photo / Getty Images
Civil rights leader Malcolm X. Photo / Getty Images

They stressed they had contacted the Herald in an effort to bring attention to the fact a teacher in New Zealand had used the word again, despite having no ill-intent, given the focus on the issue by the Lynfield College case and the Race Relations Commissioner's strong words in its aftermath.

But they did take issue with principal Justine Mahon's initial handling of the episode, telling the Herald Mahon appeared to defend the teacher's use of the word.

They also claimed that the school's proposed solution to the upset caused to students was to offer their daughter a table and chair outside the classroom for the next class, something the whānau considered "an offensive and further damaging 'solution' to the issue".

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"This solution proposes that the student is, in fact, the problem and that removing her will make things right."

Mahon disputed she had defended the use of the word, telling the Herald in a statement she "defended the honourable intention of the teacher who was trying to teach the girls about how language has been used to cause hurt and oppress others".

Responding to the allegation the school had suggested "removing" an affected student, Mahon said: "Knowing that the topic was going to be addressed in the lesson the next day, I proactively offered one girl the opportunity to work in the counsellors' area, should she prefer."

After receiving the letter, the school's board chair replied to the parent to tell them the board had met with Mahon to discuss the incident and that "the word that was used in the lesson will never be recited out loud again".

The letter from the board chair also laid out a series of other responses from St Cuthbert's, including a reconciliation workshop, the establishment of a "challenging racism committee" and extra training for staff.

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The parent told the Herald that whānau appreciated the Board of Trustees' response.

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They also called for all New Zealanders to step up to fight racism, especially in schools.

"Racism exists on a continuum. While it may seem a small thing to some people, we believe it is the responsibility of all New Zealanders to call it out wherever it occurs, especially in our schools where the future leaders of this country are being developed," they told the Herald.

"We also believe that it is entirely possible for a teacher to engage in meaningful dialogue about racism without using language that causes further harm to students."

In her statement to the Herald, Mahon reaffirmed St Cuthberts' commitment to a supportive environment that does not support racism.

"St Cuthbert's is proud to be a culturally diverse school, and our girls are taught that oppression and prejudice have absolutely no place in the world. This is an integral part of our educational offering," Mahon said.

"All our staff are deeply committed to ensuring we have a supportive environment that encourages diversity, tolerance, and does not support racism. Our staff teach our girls these important values from Years 0 to 13."

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The Herald contacted the Ministry of Education and the Race Relations Commissioner to question the progress of the guidelines mooted by Foon in June.

Secretary for Education Iona Holsted told the Herald: "Schools do not operate in isolation from society. We all know racism exists in New Zealand, and many students experience it."

"This affects their emotional, social, and academic experience of school.

"We are working to address systemic issues of racism through major initiatives, such as the Government's child and youth wellbeing strategy, and significant investment in professional learning and development for the teaching workforce."

Holsted added that the ministry meets regularly with the Human Rights Commission, the Race Relations Commissioner and the Children's Commissioner on the issues.

"They are keen to continue to work with us on how best they can contribute to supporting teachers and learners, which could be guidelines or other support," she said.

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"On a day-to-day basis, one of the most potent things that schools can do is ask the kids what would make a difference for them and engage them in solutions. We know that many schools work in this way."

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon. Photo / Whanganui Chronicle
Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon. Photo / Whanganui Chronicle

Foon confirmed to the Herald that his office is in regular touch with the ministry and he hopes to work with them to "develop guidelines to support teachers and schools to navigate difficult conversations about race and racism".

But until then, Foon added: "I think principals and teachers should make it a priority to confer about the use of controversial texts ahead of a lesson. A safe environment needs to be provided for all – but especially students. The onus should be on the school and teacher, not the student to make sure the classroom feels safe."

He said he wanted students to speak up about what support they needed in classrooms and urged the Ministry of Education and the New Zealand Teacher's Council to roll out fresh initiatives to fight racism.

"Student voices are important so I want to hear from students about the support that they need when reviewing texts about racism, so they feel safe, and the ways they think schools should be addressing race and language," Foon said.

"We know of education sector initiatives that are being designed to combat racism by the Ministry of Education and New Zealand Teachers Council. With the advent of Black Lives Matter and increased awareness of racism in society, I encourage the rollout of these initiatives as soon as possible. "

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