Jones College Prep at dismissal on March 16, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

SOUTH LOOP — Four days after a student goose-stepped in the Jones College Prep Halloween parade in a Nazi-like uniform, the school’s principal has been removed from the school and placed on leave, Chicago Public Schools’ boss said Friday.

Principal Joseph Powers was removed from his post pending an investigation, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said in an email sent to students, families and staff Friday. In a separate email sent to the Jones College Prep community, Martinez announced former principal Arthur Slater will be taking over immediately.

“This incident caused harm to many students and staff, and it is completely inconsistent with our values as a school district. It also comes at a time when hateful speech and hateful attacks are on the rise, especially against Jewish Americans,” Martinez wrote.

Principal Joseph Powers is seen here with the student wearing the uniform at the school Oct. 31. Credit: Provided.

The controversial administrator had come under fire during his tenure for ignoring or downplaying racist incidents at the school, including one in which a student used a “Build The Wall” reference in the high school yearbook in June.

Tensions reached a fever pitch this week after clips of a student goose-stepping in the school’s first-ever Halloween parade surfaced online, with students, parents and faculty calling for Powers’ removal. The principal initially downplayed the incident, an alum and an employee said. Powers said the student was misinformed about the type of uniform he was wearing, even though the student told others he was wearing a Nazi uniform.

After outcry from the Jones community, Powers issued another statement Thursday night saying representatives from several CPS agencies would be on campus to take student reports and offer support.

One student, a senior who spoke to Block Club on the condition of anonymity, said though they are relieved by the news of Powers’ removal, other school administrators remain a problem.

The student said they were so affected by the incident that they stayed home the next day. They hope to see “real restorative practices” implemented at Jones.

“[Powers] was just one part of this. This is a systemic issue, and as long as the vice principals continue to be there I believe that the behavior will continue,” the student said.

Students plan a walkout Monday at the school, 700 S. State St.

Clips of the student marching in the Monday parade made the rounds on social media this week. In one clip, he can be seen swinging his arm and leg in a march — now largely associated with Nazi soldiers — to boos from the audience.

YouTube video

In an email to Jones faculty and staff hours after the event, Powers said the student’s uniform was “an East German (communist era) border guard uniform probably from the 1980s,” adding that he’d seen guards on the “other side of the wall dressed this way” during a visit to West Berlin around that time.

“I tried to explain the context and time period of the uniform to the students who spoke with me, but apparently the student who wore the uniform may have told people it was from the 1940s. I spoke with him this afternoon and explained the same thing to him and the inferences others may have drawn,” Powers wrote.

Some faculty said they felt Powers’ response was inadequate but “on brand.” Jones has weathered multiple controversies during Powers’ tenure, including the removal of a longtime theater teacher after students complained about “offensive comments.”

Powers did not respond to Block Club’s request for comment.

The Chicago Teachers Union condemned the incident, saying Jones has been “plagued for years with charges that include persistent racial intolerance.”

“Everyone at Jones suffers as behavior such as this goes unchecked and undisciplined, and for Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools to keep the current administration in place shows their lack of regard for the families, faculty and staff they should be protected,” CTU spokesperson Chris Geovanis said.

Jones College Prep at dismissal on March 16, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

History Of Downplaying Racism At School, Alumna Says

A staff member who asked to remain anonymous said faculty and students have grown used to Powers ignoring and downplaying racist incidents to the point where they’re almost desensitized. Complaints have gone unaddressed, the staffer said.

The staffer said a culture and climate coordinator recently hired by the school was present for the Halloween parade but did not intervene.

“Up until last year, if someone had asked me if I’d stay, I’d say, ‘All schools have their problems,’ that there is no perfect school,” the staffer said. “But these past six months, I’ve started to talk to other teachers about other schools, asking them what it’s like to work at their school. I’ve worked at other schools with fewer resources, so I know the stresses there. It is starting to take a toll where I’m considering leaving.”

Jones alumna Doniya Boyd, who graduated in 2021, said racist behavior was common during her time at the school. Boyd served as student representative of the local school council for two years, often calling on Powers to discipline students engaging in racist behavior, but the administrator never took action, she said.

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When Boyd was a freshman, students participated in a Snapchat trend in which a person would say something and put a backwards filter on it, making it sound like something else, she said. A male student used the trend to say the n-word. When Black students took the matter to Powers, the administrator downplayed it in a message to students and staff, saying it was “just a little trend where you say something bad,” Boyd said.

A story Boyd cowrote as managing editor of the student newspaper her senior year about anonymous users engaging in racist and antisemitic behavior on a school Discord channel went unaddressed by school administrators, she said.

“I can’t tell you how many racist incidents my personal group of friends experienced and how many times we marched into the principal’s office to talk about it: 14-year-old girls crying in the office because they’re experiencing blatant racism, and Powers never blinked an eye,” Boyd said.

When a petition calling for Powers’ dismissal circulated in 2020, former students spoke of the racism they encountered during their time at Jones at a local school council meeting, Boyd said, adding that the incidents dated back 10 years.

Boyd said Powers is “purposely dense” when it comes to addressing racism.

“He thinks that the Jones community is going to take this very simplistic explanation of blatant racism and ignore the blatant racism of it,” Boyd said. “Even if the uniform was from whatever specific time Powers is saying it’s from, or that it may or may not be directly associated with Nazis, this student’s intention was that it be perceived as a Nazi uniform.

“It does not matter what army or technical group or what name they use. He’s, again, being purposely dense and thinking the rest of us are going to play into it.”

Jones College Prep at dismissal on March 16, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Nora Flanagan, a veteran CPS teacher and senior fellow at the Western States Center, which battles extremist activity, said Powers mishandled the incident by not immediately addressing the student’s behavior and minimizing the impact it had on the school community. Flanagan co-authored a “Confronting White Nationalism In Schools” toolkit in 2019.

“Maybe the more we have these conversations, the less this stuff will end up happening in schools,” Flanagan said. “Maybe more educators will know how to address these thing.

“We talk about not overreacting or criminalizing a kid for wearing a Halloween costume because all you’re doing is pushing them further into extremism. Don’t minimize or under-react, either, because that sends a horrific, dangerous and harmful message to the entire school community,” Flanagan said.

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