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LPS fires Lincoln High theater director over use of N-word during play rehearsal
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LPS fires Lincoln High theater director over use of N-word during play rehearsal

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Lincoln High

Lincoln High School, 2229 J St.

The Lincoln Board of Education fired the Lincoln High School theater director Wednesday for calling a student the N-word during the rehearsal of a play about the Jim Crow era in the Deep South.

The board found that the actions of Justin Holbein, who taught at Lincoln High for a decade, were unprofessional, constituted a neglect of duty and violated a number of district policies.

Justin Knight, the attorney representing Lincoln Public Schools, argued Wednesday during a hearing before the board that use of the racial slur by a teacher can’t be tolerated under any circumstances.

“For purposes of precedent, where do you draw the line,” he said. “If a teacher says it in response to a student, is it OK? If a teacher says it in a joke, is that OK? If a teacher says it once, twice? Where is the line?”

Jon Hunzeker, Holbein’s attorney, urged the board to consider each situation separately. 

“I would suggest context matters,” Hunzeker said, and firing his client, a popular teacher with a longstanding reputation for building strong relationships, would create more divisiveness.

“The evidence here is there is no just cause to cancel Mr. Holbein’s contract,” Hunzeker said. “He’s a caring teacher who made a mistake and did everything he could do to make it right.”

On Nov. 18, Holbein was rehearsing a play called “Second Samuel” — which includes the themes of acceptance, tolerance and racial equality — when he had an exchange with one of the actors, an African American student, Knight said.

They were discussing the student’s role in the play and where he would enter and exit the stage. At one point, the student said ‘So I’m going to be the only (racial slur) on the stage' and Holbein responded ‘Yes, you’re the only (racial slur) on the stage, according to Knight.

Holbein didn’t immediately apologize after the exchange, nor did he immediately report it to administrators, Knight said. He told the student to go home and think about what he wanted Holbein to do, putting the decision in the hands of the student, Knight said. 

The next day, the teacher realized the student was still upset and “it wouldn’t just go away,” so he reported it to administrators.

Hunzeker painted a different picture: that Holbein had no time to apologize between rehearsals but did so at the first opportunity. He argued his client did not put the burden to decide what to do on the student, but used “restorative practices” emphasized at Lincoln High and asked what he could do to make it right.

Holbein decided to report the incident to administrators, who had no idea anything had happened, because he wanted to set a good example for teachers and students by "self-reporting" after he'd made a mistake.

Holbein appealed a recommendation by LPS administrators to cancel his contract. An administrative officer upheld that recommendation, and Wednesday, the school board  heard arguments, upheld the administrative officer’s findings and canceled Holbein's contract.

Among other things, the board agreed with LPS administrators that Holbein’s failure to address the issue immediately put the decision in the hands of the student.

Hunzeker pointed out that the hearing officer did not find Holbein’s use of the word immoral and that it wasn’t said in any context other than that of the play.

Knight argued that using the word during the rehearsal of a play where racial tensions are a vital part of the story is especially inappropriate.

Knight said it was important to consider the effect on the student, who respected and trusted Holbein. The student said he was devastated, embarrassed and confused, and his mom felt betrayed. 

Because of Holbein’s own experiences growing up in a multi-racial family in Cozad, he embraced diversity of all kinds at Lincoln High, Hunzeker said.

Knight urged the board to consider the need to send a clear message that the racial slur has no place in the community or LPS.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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