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‘I just don’t feel safe’: Teacher targeted with racist slurs by students

A man stands outdoors wearing a red cap, a blue denim shirt, brown pants, and beaded bracelets, with a backdrop of green trees and blurred foliage.
Leevert Holmes stands outside John O’Connell High School in San Francisco on Tuesday. Holmes, a special education teacher at the high school, said he has repeatedly been called a racial slur by students over the past year. | Source: Aaron Levy-Wolins for The Standard

School is out for summer at John O’Connell High School, but a special education teacher says he is reeling from months of racist harassment by students and a lack of administrative support.

Leevert Holmes, who is Black, described multiple incidents where students at the school in the Mission called him the N-word. He said both Latino and Black students have used the slur against him dating back to last fall.

Perhaps more upsetting is what he called the lack of forceful action by administrators after he raised concerns about the slurs.

A teacher at John O'Connell High School says students called him the N-word in multiple incident, yet faced few consequences.
An electronic sign incorrectly spells “graduation” at John O’Connell High School on Tuesday. | Source: Aaron Levy-Wolins for The Standard

“It’s just becoming an issue right now that I just don’t feel safe,” Holmes said. “I feel like each time I come into the school, someone somewhere—either in my classroom or outside of the classroom in the hallways—is going to call me the N-word.”

Here is Holmes’ timeline of alleged incidents and responses by the school administration:

  • Sept. 28, 2023: A student called him a “bitch ass” N-word in the classroom. When Holmes sent a referral to the administration, a counselor assigned an educational consequence without a follow-up.
  • Nov. 7, 2023: A second student threatened Holmes with physical violence while calling him the N-word in a classroom. After a referral, the student was suspended for two days but allegedly returned un-remorseful.
  • Jan. 25, 2024: A third student said “fuck that [N-word]” to Holmes in his classroom. After a referral to the new school principal, a counselor assigned that student an educational consequence writing assignment to turn in within two weeks. It was never completed.
  • Feb. 22, 2024: The students from the November and January incidents encountered Holmes together in a hallway and screamed the N-word at him three times. After a referral to the principal, one student admitted to saying it and was assigned a research paper on the slur. It was not completed.
  • March 12, 2024: A fourth student called Holmes an N-word in his classroom. After an administration referral, a scheduled meeting with the student and a parent never happened, with no known consequences.
  • March 15, 2024: The student from the November incident encountered Holmes in a hallway and threatened to call him an N-word if he continued to talk to her. After an administration referral and a parent meeting, the student was reminded to complete the previously assigned research paper. It was not completed.
  • May 28, 2024: The student involved in the January incident called Holmes the N-word multiple times in a classroom. After an administration referral, the student was suspended from school for two days. 

After the latest incident, Holmes said he asked to be included in the student’s re-entry meeting to campus but was locked out of the room when he arrived.

The school’s response reflects a broader issue in the San Francisco Unified School District, Holmes said.

“I think this is something systemic in SFUSD. It’s systemic as a result of the culture that was created prior to our current administration,” he said, referring to a former principal. Under new school leadership this spring, Holmes saw some efforts to change that culture but said, “It’s so deep, traction takes time.”

Holmes said he has considered filing a grievance through the teachers union but hoped the administration would handle the situation properly without an adversarial process.

Now, after his second year at O’Connell and 21 years as a teacher, Holmes intends to return in the fall while continuing to push for change.

“This is my home,” he said. “I love the Mission. I love our school. I’m willing to sacrifice what I’m experiencing for it to get better.”

A man with a beard, wearing a red cap, denim shirt, and beaded necklace, leans against a wall on a quiet street lined with trees and parked cars.
Leevert Holmes says "I feel like each time I come into the school, someone somewhere—either in my classroom or outside of the classroom in the hallways—is going to call me the N-word." | Source: Aaron Levy-Wolins for The Standard

SFUSD Superintendent Matt Wayne has sent emails about racial language this year, but Holmes said he felt they merely paid “lip service” to the problem without any direct efforts to address the specific incidents at O’Connell.

When asked about Holmes’s allegations, district spokesperson Laura Dudnick didn’t respond directly. Instead, she pointed to a May 13 community letter from Wayne that decries anti-Black racism and other incidents that targeted other minority groups across the city’s public school system.

“Let me be very clear: There is no place for anti-Black racism or bigotry of any kind in our community,” Wayne’s letter said.

Still, Homes said he’s hopeful for improvements in the Mission school.

“I want O’Connell kids to be successful in the world and not be defined by what other people might think of them or project onto them,” the veteran teacher said. “I’d say keep your head high, and this too shall pass.”

After speaking with Holmes near the school campus on its graduation day, The Standard asked how he would sign a hypothetical school yearbook. Holmes said he would write to students such as the one he said calls him ‘my Black brother’ when he sees him in hallways: “Don’t forget where you come from … be mindful of where you’re going.”

George Kelly can be reached at