Riverside school board votes to fire teacher who mimicked Native Americans

The Riverside school board has voted to fire the North High School math teacher who was videotaped in October donning a mock Native American headdress and dancing around her classroom in a cellphone video that went viral, a source within the Riverside Unified School District has confirmed.

At the Thursday, Feb. 3, board meeting, school board President Brent Lee reported that the board voted in closed session to approve “charges for dismissal” against a certificated employee. He identified that employee by a number only, as people in the audience clapped.

The vote was 4-1, with Lee and trustees Kathy Allavie, Angelo Farooq and Tom Hunt voting yes. Board member Dale Kinnear, a former North High principal, voted no.

The source confirmed the employee involved in the vote was the North High math teacher, who had been placed on paid administrative leave after the video went viral.

District spokesperson Diana Meza said Thursday afternoon, before the meeting, that the teacher was still on paid leave. On Friday, Feb. 4, Meza said the teacher was on unpaid leave.

The district has not named the teacher and Meza on Friday declined to identify her.

In a text-message statement, Meza wrote that “teacher discipline cases are initiated by the Governing Board during sessions closed to the public …” She wrote that board action in closed session is reported after the panel reconvenes in an open meeting, but “employee names are not used — reporting is done using employee numbers.”

Such actions trigger a discipline process that “is often lengthy,” Meza wrote, saying the procedure is designed to protect an employee’s privacy and right to be heard and to appeal a decision.

“We understand there is public interest in action that may be taken in relation to teacher discipline, but the District must respect the statutory process and is unable to disclose information about specific cases,” she wrote.

The video triggered widespread anger in Native American communities and drew widespread criticism, with many calling the classroom action racially insensitive and a mocking of Native American culture.

In the video, the teacher appeared to be sharing the word “SohCahToa,” a mnemonic device used to help students remember advanced mathematics concepts.

As the video begins, the teacher asks students: “I don’t know? Tomahawks? Is that right?” while moving both arms up and down, as if she were chopping something. She dances across the front of the classroom, as some students laugh, repeatedly chanting “SohCahToa.”

Some came to the teacher’s defense, saying she meant no harm and was trying to help students learn.

The California Mathematics Council, however, said in a statement it was “horrified” that the teacher appeared to be “appropriating Native American culture in a disgusting attempt to teachmathematics.”

“We understand that teachers may use the mnemonic device, Soh-Cah-Toa, to support students to remember trigonometric ratios,” the council wrote. “However, it is NEVER appropriate to make up or perpetuate stories that disrespect and appropriate a culture or community.” The council said that “type of behavior” inflicts violence on Native American students and reinforces “negative stereotypes that are simply untrue.”

In the weeks following, district officials announced plans to expand diversity, equity and inclusion training and to take measures to ensure events such as Thanksgiving are taught in the classroom in their accurate historical context. In November, the district brought in local Native American leaders to share ideas on how the district can teach more sensitively and engage Native American students.

Dee Dee Ybarra, director of American Indian Movement SoCal and a Pomona resident, has been following the discussion since the video exploded on the internet. She and others attended Thursday’s board meeting.

Confident that the decision involved the North High teacher, Ybarra said she and others praised trustees for their decision during a public comment period.

“We all applauded,” Ybarra said Friday.

“I’m really happy that they listened to us,” she said. “We have been there since day one. We have been asking for this.”

Ybarra said the teacher “had to have known it was offensive,” particularly given the widespread discussion about racial sensitivity that followed the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, which sparked nationwide protests. Ybarra called the classroom action “totally wrong.”

During the meeting, Ybarra told board members the vote must have been a difficult decision.

“I know there will most likely be an appeal,” Ybarra said, according to the meeting videotape. “And I hope that this decision will stand.”

She added, “This can’t end. We have a lot of cleaning house to do and, if you’d like, we can provide the brooms for you, sweep those schools, get them nice and clean … This will not be tolerated anymore.”