By Jared D. Childress | Special to the OBSERVER

Jordan McGowan, Rio Terra teacher suspended from Twin Rivers Unified School District due to street ball move.

After being removed in December, allegedly for performing a basketball move where he “softly” bounced a ball off a student’s head during a one-on-one basketball game, history teacher and basketball coach Jordan McGowan was asked to return to work at Rio Tierra Junior High on May 31.

There’s only one problem: He doesn’t feel safe.

McGowan — who is also the Black Student Union adviser — said he has been targeted by the current school administration for the past two years and Twin Rivers Unified School District (TRUSD) failed to support him.

His reinstatement comes on the heels of parents, students, and teachers urging trustees not to dismiss the tenured educator during the April 26 TRUSD board meeting. Following public comments, the trustees voted 7-0 against dismissing McGowan and instead kept him on paid administrative leave.

“I 100% feel the public support is what saved my job,” said McGowan, who noted that he went against his union-appointed lawyer’s advice by going public about his removal via an April 25 self-published statement and petition, which he said garnered more than 400 signatures in less than 48 hours.

McGowan said TRUSD placed him on paid administrative leave because he performed the Harlem Globetrotters’ basketball move “Off the Heezy” during a one-on-one basketball game played as an alternative to detention.

“I obviously missed the mark as a teacher,” McGowan said. He added the long-term goal was to redirect the student’s behavior so they could be on the team. “I don’t cut players from the team.”

“Hopefully down the line me and the student’s family can have a conversation,” he said. He also apologized for any harm done to the student.

McGowan said the Black student was given detention Dec. 1 for skipping his class, but asked a staff member to call him to ask permission to attend basketball tryouts.

Speaking to the detention instructor on the phone, McGowan said: “How does this lil’ nigga think he’s going to come to tryouts when he didn’t come to my class?” 

According to McGowan, the student overheard his private words from his coworker’s phone. He said the student shouted back at him, “F___ you, b____ ass nigga.”

McGowan said he offered to play the student one-on-one as a “culturally responsive” approach to behavior redirection. If the student won, he’d be on the team. If McGowan won, the student wouldn’t be on the team.

The student lost.

The next day, McGowan missed a phone call from the student’s mother. Two days later, McGowan said he was given a notice placing him on paid administrative leave.

“I wasn’t told why I was placed on leave until February, when I learned I’d be getting dismissed under the pretense of using a racial slur on the phone,” McGowan said. He added that he was “confused” because he hadn’t used a racial slur.

During his meeting with human resources, McGowan said he was questioned about his use of the n-word, with HR Director Jordan Alvarado repeating the word.

“She kept saying ‘nigger’ and ‘nigga’ multiple times while questioning me, which felt very anti-Black,” McGowan said. “And I just said, ‘I’m Afrikan, I speak ebonics and only use the word in one way.’ At that point, the questioning pivoted to the basketball game.”

Montana Corbett was among the parents who advocated for McGowan’s reinstatement during the April 26 board meeting. She told The OBSERVER the school administration and district “can’t relate” to McGowan’s approach.

“I laughed when [I heard about the basketball move] because I know about the Globetrotters,” Corbett said. “Those are the kind of moves that we did growing up playing streetball. That’s how it goes.”

When asked about McGowan’s use of the n-word, Corbett said, “Coming out of a non-Black person’s mouth, that word is actually a racial slur. But when one Black person says it to another, it’s a term of endearment because we’ve reclaimed it.”

Corbett’s older son was McGowan’s student last year and her young son was “really looking forward” to having McGowan as a teacher next year. She said she felt her sons were “100% emotionally and physically safe” with McGowan.

“There’s a nationwide teacher shortage and they want to fire a Black teacher from a predominantly Black and brown school on a first offense,” Corbett said.

According to a study by the California State University, Black males make up just 1% of California’s teacher workforce. Additionally, research shows that Black students who have at least one Black teacher growing up are more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college.

Following the April 26 closed session vote, TRUSD trustee Basim Elkarra personally announced to parents and news cameras that McGowan would “not be expelled.”

“[McGowan] has impacted many students’ lives, and many of these students will be the first to go to college,” Elkarra told The OBSERVER. “He’s the teacher that everyone wishes they had.”

While McGowan holds that the board’s unanimous vote against dismissing him was a “win for the community,” he said he does not feel safe returning to Rio.

“This was not just about a basketball game,” said McGowan, who also is the founder of the Pan-African community organization the Neighbor Program. “I’ve been targeted by the principal for the last two years. [Last school year], I was pulled into the principal’s office [because] a ‘concerned citizen’ emailed our principal calling me a ‘Black Radical Communist’ on social media. This led to my principal sending the complaint to HR.”

McGowan said HR took no action regarding the social media complaint.

McGowan said that in 2020 he was allowed to do only half of his professional development lesson plan, “Decolonize the Classroom,” after which he received “passive-aggressive behavior and microaggressions” for months. At the beginning of this school year, McGowan said he was asked to remove pictures of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers from his classroom.

After more than six months on paid administrative leave, McGowan was required to return to work May 31 even though he said he told the district he felt the work environment was “unsafe.”

“I was forced back to the same campus where the principal has targeted me with his anti-Black practices,” said McGowan, who has been dealing with anxiety and panic attacks since returning to campus. “I’m being told by the district they cannot make an exception [even though I told them] the work conditions are unsafe for me.”

McGowan, the son of a Black Panther, said there must be “a much larger conversation” about how Black folks can have an equitable education that is safe and not anti-Black.

“We have to get away from school systems that were never meant to protect us,” McGowan said.

Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.