Jones College Prep principal removed from duties over response to student dressed up in apparent Nazi uniform on Halloween

Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Chicago Public Schools announced Friday that Jones College Prep Principal Joseph Powers has been removed from “principal duties, effective immediately, pending the results” of an investigation into his response to a student who came to school on Halloween dressed in a German military uniform, goose-stepped across a stage during a costume contest and gave a Nazi salute.

The Chicago Teachers Union on Friday had called for his removal and students had planned to stage a walkout from class Monday.

“As many of you may have heard, seen, or read, there was an incident earlier this week where a member of one of our school communities wore a German military uniform to school as a Halloween costume — an act that was widely recognized by many students, staff and members of our broader CPS community as antisemitic. This incident caused harm to many students and staff, and it is completely inconsistent with our values as a school district,” said Pedro Martinez, CPS chief executive officer. “In response, CPS has launched a full investigation into the incident in accordance with our district’s protocols for processing bias-based harm. ... Furthermore, CPS has removed the school’s leader from their principal duties, effective immediately, pending the results of that investigation.”

In April, Martinez declined to fire Powers because of “insufficient evidence of misconduct” after the high school’s Local School Council voted 8-2 to direct Martinez to initiate dismissal proceedings for allegations of mishandled reports of sexual misconduct, mismanaged school finances and a failure to address “systemic” discrimination issues, among other complaints.

“Far too long in coming, and unacceptable that it took this video to make this happen given the levels of anti-Blackness tolerated at this school for so long,” said parent Cassie Creswell, former chair of the LSC, who helped write an 11-page letter to Martinez and the CPS inspector general in February that outlined their concerns about Powers. “But it is a relief that someone in central office made the right decision.”

Meanwhile this week, students have taken to social media to condemn the principal for his response to the controversy. In a video posted to Twitter and TikTok, the student is seen on stage during a school costume contest, where he goose-stepped, a marching step largely associated with Nazi soldiers, and did the Nazi salute to a booing crowd. In a photo attached to the post, Powers is standing next to the student in the outfit.

In his first email to parents on Nov. 2 about the incident, Powers wrote, “Many of our students and staff came to school on Monday, October 31, dressed in Halloween costumes. We held a costume contest in the afternoon during Ac Lab, which was fun and well-received. Amid all the other costumes, a member of our school community wore a military surplus army uniform. Staff and students expressed their concerns about the uniform, believing that it represented an expression of antisemitism. Additionally, a video of the costume parade has since appeared on social media.

“I certainly understand and regret the discomfort and harm felt by some members of our school community. Please be assured that we take the well-being of all students seriously and do not tolerate hateful expressions of any kind. In this situation, it certainly appears this was not the intent of the Halloween costume.”

But after outrage grew, Powers sent a second email to Jones faculty and parents the next day, stating the school should have handled the incident with “greater care” and should have “communicated more clearly with the school community about the nature of the incident.”

“We deeply regret the pain that this incident has caused our school community, and we ask for your partnership as we address this situation and move forward together,” Powers wrote.

He also wrote, “we want you to know that we are addressing this situation directly with the member of our school community who wore the costume in accordance with protocols for processing bias-based harm,” adding that the various CPS offices, including the Office of Student Protections, are providing support to students and will receive additional reports of specific harm students have experienced.

Powers did not return an email to the Tribune requesting comment.

Creswell told the Tribune that the school’s inaction toward discriminatory incidents was one of the “major contributing factors” to the LSC’s vote to remove Powers as principal last spring.

”The truth is that there has just been a very long-standing problem at Jones,” said Creswell. “When there are racist incidents, the administration has not responded effectively or appropriately or safely.”

Creswell said she learned of the Halloween costume incident from a school staff member. She then asked her child, who told her that the student was telling people that he was dressed up like a Nazi. She later saw the video online.

“There should be a playbook of what you do and what you do is not try to pretend that the child’s intent was not to appear like a Nazi. It’s clearly his intent,” she said.

CTU claims parents, teachers and support staff have repeatedly raised concerns about the culture of intolerance at Jones but have been “routinely ignored.”

“There should never, ever, be a context in which children feel uncomfortable or unsafe inside of a school building,” the CTU statement read. “Jones is more than 50% students of color, and its current climate of rampant bigotry and racial intolerance is absolutely unacceptable. All schools need leadership that provides a safe and inclusive environment for each and every student and adult who walks through its doors.”

joanderson@chicagotribune.com