Too special to spell

New York City is buzzing about a Brooklyn middle-school principal who refused to let a special education student compete in a districtwide spelling bee. The Post and the Daily News have similar stories, quoting an eighth grader who won his class spelling bee. When no other classes held bees, he was named school champion. But Principal Mendis Brown wouldn’t let him represent the school at the next level.

“(The principal) said, ‘You don’t have the brains to do it. You’re gonna go to the first round and get eliminated and make the school look bad,'” said 13-year-old Lamarre St. Phard.

The boy was placed in special education for behavioral problems.

The principal then organized a schoolwide spelling bee and Lamarre was eliminated, according to teachers who said a general education student was declared the winner.

When the winning student and the first runnerup got cold feet and declined to compete in the next round, Brown allegedly refused to allow the second runnerup – another special education student – to advance.

At Chalkboard, Joe Williams commends the school’s teachers for blowing the whistle and recounts stories of spelling bee inequities from his days as a reporter for the Milwaukee Sentinel, which sponsored the city bee.

At one of the contests, which I was covering, a soft-spoken African-American boy took a shot at spelling a somewhat difficult word. The judges, which included retired business leaders (aka old white dudes), had trouble hearing the kid. I was right up front and could hear that he spelled the word correctly. The judges asked him to repeat the answer in a louder voice, which he did, only this time he mixed himself up and spelled it incorrectly. He was out, and he bowed out gracefully, almost as if he felt he wasn’t really supposed to advance in the competition.

A few kids later, a precious blond-haired kid took a turn at spelling an equally-difficult word. Midway through the word, after he offered an incorrect sequence of letters, one of the judges (an old white dude) interrupted him with, “uhhh, are you sure about that?” The kid backtracked, quickly corrected his mistake, and was allowed to complete the word. The precious blond-haired kid advanced to the finals and went on to represent the school in a regional round against other nearby city schools.

Even worse is the story of a teacher who refused to allow her class to participate “because there are too many losers in spelling bees, and my students need to know they are winners.”

About Joanne


  1. Alex Bensky says:

    In the interests of full disclosure, I write as the all-school spelling champion of Tyler School in nineteen….well, it’s been a while.

    Yes, the worst part is the harebrained teacher who won’t let the kids compete because her students need to know they are winners.

    This will have one of two effects: either the kids will learn not to pay attention to anything she says, knowing she really never means anything. Or they’ll wind up as products of a system that grants self-esteem and a high opinion of oneself without having to do anything, and this breeds an overweening sense of entitlement.

  2. mike from oregon says:

    Ya know, there is such a thing as competition – it exists in all forms throughout all life. Worried about things like ‘there will be too many losers’ is akin to saying ‘I’ll never let my kid go out on a date because I’m scared of what will happen sex-wise’. Instead of worrying about losers how about motivating the kids to learn and do well? Encourage them, don’t coddle them.

    Gad I hate this PC nation.

  3. The boy was placed in special education for behavioral problems.

    This makes me more uneasy than anything else in the article. Given NYC’s reputation, it could mean just about anything.