I saw this story yesterday and thought it couldn’t possibly be real but, unfortunately, it is. Until this week, Marlon Anderson was a high school security guard in Madison, Wisconsin, a job he had held at various schools for 11 years. Last Wednesday, he was asked to help remove a disruptive student from the school and the situation turned ugly. Anderson summarized his experience on Facebook this way: “I get called a [email protected]# @ss Ni€€A by a student, I responded do ‘not call me ni€€a !’ And I got fired.” The NY Times provides a more detailed account of what happened:

The student, a 17-year-old senior, had finished classes for the day and had taken another student’s cellphone when the assistant principal intervened, according to Mr. Anderson, who said the student then pushed the assistant principal.

As Mr. Anderson was trying to escort the student out of the building, he said, the student taunted him with the racial slur about 15 times. He said he repeatedly told the student to stop using the slur, which he himself repeated several times.

That’s when he said the assistant principal, Jennifer Talarczyk, turned on the microphone of her walkie-talkie, so that Mr. Anderson could be overheard by school administrators and members of the security staff. He said Ms. Talarczyk told him to “tap out” and remove himself from the confrontation with the student.

“I’m not going to be called that word,” Mr. Anderson said in the interview. “I have a right to not be called that word, I believe. I feel like she tolerated it for the entire ordeal.”

Anderson is right. He shouldn’t have to tolerate that abuse from a 17-year-old punk. It’s understandable if it got him a bit heated. So long as he didn’t overreact by getting physical with the student (and no one is claiming that) this shouldn’t have been an issue. So why would the school fire an 11-year employee for telling someone else not to direct the N-word at him? Because of the school’s new zero-tolerance policy:

“So if the class is reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and the teacher is reading the book out loud and it gets to the part where the N-word is, the teacher gets fired?” Mr. Anderson asked. “It has nothing to do with context, but it has everything to do with the actual word.”

Gloria Reyes, the school board president for the Madison Metropolitan School District, said in a statement on Thursday that the policy would be re-examined.

“We’ve taken a tough stance on racial slurs, and we believe that language has no place in schools,” Ms. Reyes said. “We have also heard from the community about the complexity involved — and our duty to examine it.”

I’m all for discouraging staff and students from using this language in school, but punishing Anderson, in this case, makes no sense. I can certainly imagine other circumstances where this could lead to a justifiable firing. If Anderson had said it first, okay. If he used the word in retaliation against the student who was attacking him with it, probably. But all he allegedly did here was demand a little respect and tell the student not to direct that word at him. Wasn’t that the point of the whole crackdown in the first place?

The district needs to give this man his job back and offer him an apology for this dumb over-reaction.

Here’s a local news report in which Anderson gets emotional about the incident. “My father was called this word. My grandmother. My grandfather…We were all called this word and not one of them could say ‘Don’t call me that!’ I can.”