Justin Williford: Putting the Ass in Asinine—Small Town Sexism

Vance County, North Carolina?—4th in teen pregnancy, 88th in SAT scores, and 1st in blatant sexism. That appears to be the county’s new tagline after the recent five-day suspension of Sandra Wiggins?—a history teacher at Southern Vance High School who has worked with the school district for almost twenty-six years.

Sandra Wiggins did the inconceivable—she said “ass” in a classroom filled with seventeen and eighteen-year-old students; students who, whether their parents would like to believe it or not, use language of that caliber in their everyday conversations. That much I can attest to myself, having attended the school until 2013. Students in Wiggins’ class say that one student asked Mrs. Wiggins to reproduce a worksheet from a few days earlier. Mrs. Wiggins responded that she would do that, but she wasn’t fast enough for the child. They asked again, “well aren’t you going to get it?” to which Sandra replied, “In a minute, I just can’t pull it out of my ass you know.” The best choice of words? No. Something worthy of suspension? Absolutely not. Something that would have gotten a male teacher suspended? No way in hell.

The higher ups in the Vance County school system tried to keep this quiet, assuming that it would all die down in due time. Wiggins’ students recognized how rash and uncalled for the suspension was, and sought to right the wrongs done to Sandra. A petition was made late Thursday evening calling for Dr. Anthony Jackson, superintendent of Vance County Schools, to reinstate and apologize to Mrs. Wiggins. The petition garnered over 1,300 signatures in just two days, and has been shared 100 times on social media.

In addition to their signatures, 423 people took the time to comment on Mrs. Wiggins, her legacy at Southern Vance, and her kindness as a human being. Adonis Baskerville noted that Wiggins cares about her students even after graduation, saying “she has remained in contact with me all of these years and kept in touch a lot during my deployment to Afghanistan.” Brian Neal described her as “one of the very few bright spots I remember from my time at Southern.” An anonymous commenter even said that “she must be an amazing teacher if her students are willing to stand up for her.” Other comments range from personal anecdotes about their time with Mrs. Wiggins, to how her love for teaching inspired them to go into education, but the overall message is clear—#FreeWiggy.

The suspension comes at a critical time for students at Southern Vance, just two weeks away from their AP United States History exam. On average, only seven percent of AP exams taken at Southern Vance receive a passing grade. However, students in Wiggins’ classes have always been successful on the notoriously difficult exam. Vance County Schools declined to disclose how many of Sandra’s students pass, but former students I interviewed estimated that it was usually around half of the class or so.

Sexism is rampant in the workplace, and academia is no different. In a recent article published by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, they claim that women have yet to gain equality in the field of education. Teaching evaluations consistently score women lower than men, and the disparity only becomes more apparent with women of color and queer women. Female academic staff find themselves facing “attitudes ranging from mild disrespect and objectification to outright taunts and threats” on a daily basis. “It will take renewed commitments of resources, activism and solidarity to disrupt a status quo that has so long remained intractable.”

Abby Hope, Southern Vance class of 2015 valedictorian, had a lot to say about the recent decision. After hearing about the suspension and gathering as much information as she could, Abby drafted a letter to Dr. Jackson calling for justification on the issue. In her letter, she said “I had the great pleasure of being taught by Mrs. Wiggins twice in my high school career, and the experience made all the difference for me. Her passion for the subject, intricate knowledge of the material, and cheerful, lively demeanor combined to make her, unquestionably, the greatest instructor I have had to date.”

Abby challenged the Vance County School System’s suspension decision, asking Dr. Jackson if the punishment for “such a minor offense as the slip of a swear word in a high school classroom would be as harsh had the instructor been a male.” She praised Sandra as a teacher, saying “I know of no one more qualified, respectful, and genuinely kind as Sandra Wiggins, and frankly, find it incomprehensible that her reputation, built over the course of a twenty year teaching career, be tarnished for the slip of a tongue in a single instance.”

Dr. Jackson responded to Abby’s query, although the response was quite lackluster. He notes that the specifics of the situation could not be discussed, as doing so “would violate school board policy, and state and federal confidentiality laws. I can; however, say that school board policy is very clear when it comes to setting expectations for professional standards and expectations of staff.” Abby Hope’s 500 word letter, challenging this decision made under little to no merit, was met with one sentence from Dr. Jackson

I looked into what these expectations were for teachers, as set by Vance County Schools. The employee handbook, updated in March of 2015, lists these expectations. In the handbook, you can find the district’s policies on professional dress, student-teacher relationships, and tobacco use on school campuses—nowhere in the fifty-four page document are their any guidelines for the use of crude language. There are also no recommended sanctions for such an offense, and therefore it’s unclear as to what these “very clear expectations” are that Dr. Jackson referred to in his reply.

Abby Hope, again unsatisfied with this response, penned another letter to Dr. Jackson. She talked about her own experiences at Southern Vance, where she heard “male instructors use racial slurs, sexually loaded statements, and derogatory language far more explicit than Mrs. Wiggins was reported as using once in a characteristically lighthearted manner.”

“I am unable to see how it served as an impediment to the learning environment in this case,” Abby said—an opinion that has reverberated itself in the hundreds of comments on the petition to reinstate Sandra.

“At this point, I realize that the reinstatement of Mrs. Wiggins prior to the end of her suspension is unlikely,” Abby said on the matter, “but I feel as though, given the tremendous outpouring of support, an apology from the school board is not only merited, but necessary.”

Call out Vance County’s sexist double standards.

Petition for the reinstatement of Sandra Wiggins.

Demand an apology from Vance County Schools.