RALEIGH — Wake County school officials are investigating allegations that an Enloe High School teacher threatened to rescind college recommendation letters for a student who criticized the level of diversity in classes at the magnet school.
During classes Thursday, Enloe social studies teacher Joseph Hoffman allegedly criticized a letter to the editor in The News & Observer from Enloe senior Jay Zhang, who complained about the "glaring academic and cultural divide" between magnet and non-magnet students.
Without mentioning Zhang by name, Hoffman expressed his disappointment during the class and told students he was considering rescinding his college recommendation letters, according to several students in his classes.
"The allegations are very severe," Michael Evans, a Wake schools' spokesman, said Monday. Superintendent Tony Tata's "first concern was for the safety of Jay. His right to free speech may have been violated."
Evans said that an investigation has been launched into the alleged incident and that officials are working with Enloe school administrators to determine what happened. He said that Hoffman, who has taught at Enloe since 2003, is still teaching in the classroom.
Hoffman declined to comment Monday. Enloe Principal Beth Cochran did not return calls for comment.
In his letter to the editor, Zhang wrote that there's a separation between the magnet and non-magnet students at the school that can't be ignored. He wrote that he's never seen more than two black students in any of his classes at Enloe.
"Despite being hailed as a success against segregation, Enloe remains, with few exceptions, separated and unequal within," Zhang wrote.
Zhang's letter touched on a sensitive topic at Enloe High School.
Enloe, located two miles east of the state Capitol in downtown Raleigh, accepts magnet students from across the county. Students who live near the school account for 38 percent of the school's 2,672 students. Other students in the surrounding neighborhoods are bused to other schools to make room for the magnet students. Enloe has the top average SAT score in the school district and offers a variety of courses not offered at non-magnet schools.
The magnet program has allowed Enloe to attract students from a wide range of cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds. But black and Hispanic students, who account for many of the non-magnet students, perform below the county average on state exams. Black and Hispanic students are also not as likely to be found in the advanced courses at Enloe.
Enloe parents, students and teachers have vocally opposed the school board's move to neighborhood schools. Speakers have attended meetings touting Enloe's diversity with some being arrested for disrupting school board meetings.
Zhang said in an interview Friday that he saw an immediate backlash to his letter.
That prompted him to write an apology letter that he said he sent to all his current and former Enloe teachers and posted on his Facebook page. In the apology, Zhang wrote that he's a supporter of magnet schools and the diversity policy. He also apologized for the damage his original letter caused to the school.
Zhang said he was scared of Hoffman's alleged threat to rescind college recommendation letters. Zhang, who is ranked seventh in his class, said he has been accepted into some colleges but is still waiting to hear back from several others.
"He's probably one of the best teachers I've ever had," Zhang said. "I'm particularly hurt that I offended him."
Several students shared similar accounts of what happened in Hoffman's classes Thursday. But many, saying they feared retribution, asked not to be identified.
Maggie Lee, one of Hoffman's Advanced Placement U.S. History students, said she was surprised that Hoffman spent so much of Thursday's class talking about the letter and saying that Zhang wasn't the student he thought he was when he wrote the recommendation letters.
Lee also said that Hoffman read off the names of the colleges to which he had written letters for Zhang and singled out the three African-American students in the class to ask them what they thought about the letter.
Lee and Zhang said that friends in Hoffman's other classes also heard the teacher make remarks Thursday about the college recommendation letters. Lee is the daughter of Patrice Lee, a co-founder of Wake CARES, a group critical of Wake's old diversity policy.
"It's not OK for him to tell us what's right and what's wrong," said Lee, a junior. "When it's a controversial topic, give us the facts and let us decide."
Patrice Lee said Hoffman is a good teacher who should be allowed to stay at Enloe. But Lee said that Hoffman should have to apologize for what he said in class Thursday.
On Monday, Enloe parents who support the diversity policy acknowledged that things aren't perfect at the school. But they said that Enloe is trying to reach out to meet the needs of its low-income and minority students.
"Enloe is a very vibrant place, but there are things we need to work on," said Enloe magnet parent Christine Kushner.
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