MacDonald Middle School teacher on paid leave following alleged use of anti-Black slur

The main entrance of MacDonald Middle School in East Lansing, pictured Monday, May 3, 2021.

EAST LANSING — A middle school gym teacher is on paid administrative leave while East Lansing Public Schools investigates his alleged use of an anti-Black slur.

MacDonald Middle School teacher Dennis Petrowitz allegedly used the slur during class two weeks ago, MacDonald Middle School Principal Amy Martin said in an emailed letter to families.

"As a follow-up yesterday, Mr. Petrowitz, along with Klaudia Burton, Director of Equity and Social Justice, and Adeline Alderink, Restorative Practices Facilitator, held Restorative Circle discussions in each class where students were provided a safe space to share their comments and feedback," she wrote. "Based on the input received during these discussions, Mr. Petrowitz has been placed on administrative leave while we continue our investigation."

Her letter didn't include specifics on how the slur came into use. Messages seeking comment were left on Petrowitz's voicemail and sent to his school email on Monday but were not immediately returned.

Petrowitz apologized in a letter sent to middle school families.

"There were students using the 'N-word' interchangeably amongst themselves," he said in the letter. "In my haste to redirect the behavior, I addressed the students by stating that they shouldn't use that word and in doing so, I used the actual word itself. I immediately felt terrible and regretted using it.

"I am deeply sorry for my actions and the impact it has had on the MMS community."

East Lansing Public Schools Superintendent Dori Leyko confirmed Petrowitz is on paid administrative leave and declined to share further information about the incident.

East Lansing Education Association Vice President Mark Pontoni said in an interview with the State Journal Friday the union would ensure Petrowitz's rights are protected. He added there are "many layers to this story" he couldn't talk about.

"No one is going to defend the use of that word in any situation," Pontoni said. "It is hard to defend that. We're certainly not going to do that."

Internally, he said, union members who've reached out are shocked over Petrowitz's possible use of the slur, and they're concerned about Petrowitz's rights being protected during the investigation.

There's no word on how long the investigation could take.

In his letter, Petrowitz said that he is "committed to working to repair the trust within the East Lansing community" and plans to undergo racial justice, anti-racism and implicit bias training this summer.

From 2021: East Lansing teacher reinstated after probe of slavery assignments

This isn't MacDonald Middle School's first controversy involving race.

Eighth-grade history teacher Matt Christians was put on paid administrative leave in spring 2021 after he assigned controversial coursework on slavery during Black History Month. The assignment asked students to imagine themselves as enslaved people. An internal investigation found the assignment had been part of an in-class activity at the middle school since 2006. It has since been pulled. Christians was later reinstated to his teaching position.

Pontoni said the district has made progress since then. He doesn't correlate the two incidents but said problems don't go away by condemning and silencing all involved.

"That isn't going to make the situation better," he said. "This is why Dennis deserves the hearing and the full story of what actually happened is told."

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Contact reporter Krystal Nurse at 517-267-1344 or Follow her on Twitter @KrystalRNurse.

This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: East Lansing teacher on paid leave after allegedly using racial slur