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Teen Says Press Forced Action Against Teacher Who Ranted Against Black Lives

A 17-year-old Black girl who filmed a biology teacher unleash a torrent of expletives about George Floyd sued the school Wednesday for intervening only to quell a public-relations crisis.

A 17-year-old Black girl who filmed a biology teacher unleash a torrent of expletives about George Floyd sued the school Wednesday for intervening only to quell a public-relations crisis.

(Image of William L. Dickinson High School courtesy of the Jersey City Board of Education via Courthouse News)

NEWARK, N.J. (CN) — Months after Timmia Williams reported to school administrators that her teacher had sworn at the students in class, the 17-year-old says she was left in tears when the educator spun what was meant to be a lesson about climate change into one about the worth of her life and those of other Black people.

She went to court Wednesday after her recording of the virtual class from this past April caused a media maelstrom and got the teacher, Howard Zlotkin, suspended.

Seeking punitive damages, the senior from Jersey City, New Jersey, says she "was devastated, humiliated, and outraged by the racist abuse she suffered during a public school class she was required to attend."

Williams is represented by Ali Frick with the New York firm Kaufman Lieb. They brought the federal complaint in Newark against William L. Dickinson High School, the Jersey City Board of Education and Zlotkin, among other school personnel.

On the school's website, Zlotkin is still listed as a member of the faculty, though he has been suspended for over a month. “The teacher will not have access to students or the school as we proceed," the school said of Zlotkin in May, after the video Williams recorded went viral. "We are appalled by the statements, profanity, disrespect and treatment of students."

But in her complaint Wednesday, Williams questions why the school wasn't outraged months earlier when she reported Zlotkin to administrators for having called the students "fucking idiots."

"Instead of formally investigating, disciplining, or removing Zlotkin from the teacher roster, school administrators allowed his class to continue as before," the complaint states. "The only change was that, in the very next class, Zlotkin screamed at the students that someone had “ratted him out” to the principal."

Williams says it was with this precedent in mind that she turned to family, school counselors and finally the media when Zlotkin began ranting in an April 28 class about George Floyd, the Black man whose murder by police last year set off international protests.

“George Floyd was a fucking criminal about to be arrested and he got killed because he wouldn’t comply," Zlotkin said, as quoted in Williams' 20-page complaint. "And the bottom line is you make him a fucking hero? He’s not a hero. He’s like a criminal.”

Zlotkin did not stop his racist remarks at Floyd, according to the complaint, which says the teacher of 20 years took a broader jab at Black families by insinuating that they have more kids than they can afford. 

“I don’t really care who you are or what color you are,” Zlotkin said, according to the complaint. “I worked three jobs every fucking day of my life. I have one kid, not seven, because I can’t afford seven.”

Williams says Zlotkin "berated students for 'whining and crying' in declaring that Black Lives Matter," and added insult to injury with a demeaning assignment.

"He told [Williams] and three other students that they would be required to write essays explaining why Black lives should matter," according to the complaint.

Williams says all of the students given the humiliating assignment were young women of color, like herself, and that the school was no help to her when she tried to report "Zlotkin's outrageous conduct."

Screenshot from viral video showing Jersey City schoolteacher Howard Zlotkin telling students who refused to complete an assignment about why Black lives matter that they are "full of shit." (Image via Courthouse News)

When they all logged in for class the next day, according to the complaint, Zlotkin heaped fresh scorn upon the students for refusing to participate in the assignment.

In addition to stating that Williams “'couldn’t make a case for herself' — i.e., that she was incapable of justifying her own worth as a Black person," Zlotkin told the students they were “full of shit” and that they were a “bunch of whiners,” the complaint recounts.

Frick, the attorney representing Williams, called it outrageous that no one at the school even bothered to get back to his client until after "she had been subjected to yet another class full of racist vitriol."

“Even more outrageous is that the school knew full well that Zlotkin was utterly unfit for the classroom and yet did nothing to protect students from him," Frick said in a statement.

Zlotkin purportedly referenced his training as a biology teacher as a basis to question to value of Black lives in a class titled "Landscape and Design."

The lawsuit also says describes what happened to one of the students who decried the injection of race into class discussion: Zlotkin kicked the boy out of the virtual classroom.

Williams says the class left her in tears and that it was a full 24 hours later before anyone at school reached out to her about what happened. By that time, she had already gone to the press.

Zlotkin did not return a request for comment Wednesday, nor did other school defendants.

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