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A CT teacher was fired for using the N-word & stereotypes in class. Now, she’s getting her job back.

Teacher Nancy Axon.
Provided photograph
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CTECS
Teacher Nancy Axon

Three years ago, a Connecticut high school teacher was fired for violating a non-discrimination policy when she taught a lesson plan that magnified racist stereotypes during Black History Month. Now she’s headed back into the classroom after she won her job back.

A Connecticut high school teacher who was fired for a racist lesson plan three years ago is headed back to the classroom with more than $250,000 in back pay after winning a nearly three-year legal battle over her dismissal.

The Connecticut Technical Education and Career System fired the teacher, Nancy Axon, for violating the school system’s non-discrimination policy after she gave a set of lessons on stereotypes about Black and Hispanic people during Black History Month at Platt Technical High School in Milford.

Andres Garcia remembers his shock when he saw Axon write a list of stereotypes about Black men on the whiteboard — words like “gang,” “KFC food,” “Jordan clothes,” “leaving children,” “no paying child support” and two variations of the N-word.

“She didn’t give us a warning,” Garcia said. “Normal teachers would be like, oh, you know, this uses some profanity in this section.”

As part of an unapproved lesson plan in the majority-minority school, Axon asked students to read a book called “Brother to Brother” and then contribute stereotypes for the list.

Another student, Edwin Solis, snapped a photo.

“She would ask the class, but then she would also like, have her own input on it,” Solis said. “I thought it was out of pocket. I thought it was straight-up disrespectful.”

Nancy Axon class whiteboard with racist language
Provided by Edwin Solis
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Captured on a camera phone, Platt Technical High School teacher Nancy Axon's whiteboard is shown after she wrote racist language and stereotypes during a Black History Month lesson in 2019.

According to both former students, it wasn’t the first time a racist incident happened in Axon’s class. Garcia and Solis said she’d regularly call students by nicknames she came up with related to their ethnicity — like calling Garcia “gringo” for being Guatemalan but not fluent in Spanish.

“Ms. Axon is a teacher,” Garcia said. “She has to be professional about this, and this was very unprofessional.”

After a pair of interns heard students talking about the incident, Platt Tech administrators launched an investigation. Six students made statements saying that Axon used the N-word multiple times and that the discussion of racist stereotypes made them feel attacked and uncomfortable.

“I personally feel attack (sic) because it was only 2 (sic) of us African Americans in the classroom, and she keep looking at us,” one student wrote in a statement. “I feel like she shouldn’t use those words regardless of the discussion.”

Connecticut Public reached out to both Nancy Axon and her lawyer, but neither returned our messages. Axon told administrators in the investigation report that she was not a racist. She also denied using the N-word and said she was dumbfounded that the students were offended because she had taught a similar lesson at other schools. Axon also said in the report that she was trying to connect with her students because they are “reluctant readers that live in housing projects with drugs and gun violence.”

The investigation concluded that Axon violated the school system’s non-discrimination policy. By the end of the school year, the 20-year teacher was terminated.

But Axon fought back through her union — ultimately winning her case. The arbitrator decided that although discipline was warranted, the school system rarely terminates teachers. That made her firing disproportionally severe.

Platt Technical High School in Milford
Ryan Caron King
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Connecticut Public
The front entrance to the former Platt Technical High School building in Milford. The school was recently moved to a newly constructed building nearby.

Labor and employment attorney Floyd Dugas, who was not involved in this case, said arbitrators typically look for progressive discipline — a documented verbal warning, then a formal warning, then a suspension, before termination. But in Axon’s case, she was terminated without warning. And while Axon had been previously disciplined for things like getting her hair done during school hours, that discipline was too old to be counted against her.

“Certainly in this day and age, you know, use of the N-word and making racially insensitive statements are given a more heightened level of scrutiny than they have in the past,” Dugas said. “Still, arbitrators, I think, are going to look to the process of progressive discipline.”

Dugas says termination without progressive discipline is usually reserved for incidents like physical assault, stealing, insubordination and sleeping on the job.

“I've had many cases where I've successfully defended in arbitration the termination of teachers and police officers and any other employees.” Dugas said. “But if you're rushed to it without doing the foundational work, you can run into a problem, as happened here.”

The state argued, however, that Axon so severely violated the school’s non-discrimination clause, it would go against public policy to reinstate her.

“It just was clearly offensive to the students, highly disruptive, and she didn't ever apologize,” attorney Beth Margulies said in a November 2020 court hearing. “The students in the class that had been complaining — she called them a wolf pack. She wanted them not to be in her class anymore.”

The arbitrator ruled that while Axon’s misconduct was egregious, she should have been suspended for seven months instead of being dismissed. That means Axon is getting her $98,000 job back.

For Solis, it’s a disappointing outcome.

“She does not need her job back,” Solis said. “Because what if she does the same thing?”

Axon is set to start teaching at A.I. Prince Technical High School in Hartford later this month and is currently fighting to make the state pay for her legal fees.

Walter Smith Randolph is the Investigative Editor and Director of The Accountability Project at Connecticut Public Broadcasting. The New York City native comes to CT Public after a decade of reporting at local tv stations across the country.
Carmen Molina Acosta is the 2022 Dow Jones News Intern for the Accountability Project. She graduated from the University of Maryland in May 2022.