March 7, 2023

Edison School of the Arts community members demand removal of CEO after alleged use of ‘n-word’

Members of Edison School of the Arts’ student body government speak in front of the school’s board and demand the removal of CEO Nathan Tuttle after he said a racial slur to a student. - Elizabeth Gabriel/WFYI News

Members of Edison School of the Arts’ student body government speak in front of the school’s board and demand the removal of CEO Nathan Tuttle after he said a racial slur to a student.

Elizabeth Gabriel/WFYI News

Roughly 200 students, staff and parents filled the cafeteria at Edison School of the Arts Tuesday night to demand the school’s chief executive officer be fired -- and that he provide a public apology -- after allegations that he said the “n-word” to a student of color last week. 

CEO Nathan Tuttle has been on administrative leave since last Thursday. Meanwhile, the Edison school community is reeling. Tuttle did not attend the meeting.

“I had to explain what the ‘n-word’ meant to my six-year-old and my now five-year-old. Unacceptable. They shouldn't even know what that means because it's unacceptable,” said Shawna Boles, a parent and former educator at the school. 

But many who spoke at the meeting claimed this is only one example of the toxic school environment of racism and misogyny that speakers said is facilitated by the school’s administration. 

Located on the southwest side of Indianapolis, Edison School of the Arts School 47 is a K-8 facility within the Indianapolis Public Schools district. The school is part of the district’s innovation network and operates within the IPS district through a special contract that allows the school autonomy from some district policies and an exemption from collective bargaining contracts for staff. Edison converted to this type of model in 2017.

The school’s visual performing arts and academics curriculum quickly garnered support from local families once it relocated to its current building in fall 2016. Now the school serves nearly 600 students — 56 percent are Black, 25 percent are Hispanic and nearly 72 percent qualify for free and reduced meals, the national child poverty indicator. 

Now, school leader Tuttle is under fire after community members allege he used inappropriate language with a student on March 2. 

According to multiple members of the public who spoke during the Tuesday meeting, Tuttle was speaking to a group of five boys who were being disruptive. One of the students said the n-word, and then Tuttle allegedly repeated it when he told the students any form of that word was unacceptable. The students were later taken into an office to discuss Tuttle’s use of the word with some of the parents of the five students, staff and one of the school’s board members. 

Public commenters alleged administrators such as Tuttle, Principal in Residence James Hill and Director of Operations Vionta Jones either asked the students to lie about the incident or allegedly didn’t tell the truth to other staff or parents about what happened. Multiple people also said Tuttle addressed the situation during a meeting, in which they claim he said he only used the word because he has a Black son. 

The school’s board hired Heather Harris with the Indianapolis law firm Barnes and Thornburg to conduct an investigation, but it’s unclear how long it will last. 

“The next day [after the incident], I had a student come to me during the day telling me that they no longer like their skin. They asked me, ‘How do I be white,’” said Lesley Reed, an instructional assistant at Edison who pleaded to the school's board members to make changes that would improve the well-being of students and staff while at school. 

Members of the student body also asked that Tuttle be removed and that he issue a public apology for his comment. They claimed Tuttle antagonizes certain students and doesn’t hold all students accountable to the same dress code and cell phone policies. The students also demanded a change in culture to help retain staff members.

About 80 students held a protest and march inside the Edison school building the day after the incident. 

“The Board takes these allegations seriously and placed the executive director on administrative leave, pending investigation,” a statement from the school’s board said. “We have engaged in conversations with our staff, students and families about this incident and have made support available to students and staff at the school.” 

But some parents are skeptical that there will be any meaningful changes. Kori Durham is the former head of Edison’s parent leadership team. She resigned this week because she said she didn’t feel safe. 

“How are we supposed to trust you? How are we supposed to trust that this is going to be handled appropriately? How am I supposed to trust that my three children can be back in this building,” said Durham.

Durham said her children are doing online instruction until she feels safe taking them back to the school. 

Edison’s school model is set to expand in fall 2024 under IPS’ Rebuilding Stronger plan, which aims to provide more academic and extracurricular opportunities to all students. The plan will allow Edison School of the Arts to open a second K-8 location at James Whitcomb Riley School 43 under a four-year innovation contract. 

In late 2021, Tuttle asked the Indiana Charter School Board to approve a charter that would allow him to open a second K-8 arts academy in 2022 outside of the IPS district. IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson wrote a letter opposing the request. The board approved the charter.

Contact WFYI education reporter Elizabeth Gabriel at Follow on Twitter: @_elizabethgabs.

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