PENNS GROVE — Using the “nuclear bomb of racial epithets” in class is not a good enough reason to fire a teacher, according to a state arbitrator who suggested that black people might not be able to fairly judge situations involving the slur.

The Penns Grove-Carneys Point regional district tried to fire middle school science teacher Bruce Bassetti last school year after several students reported hearing him quietly use an anti-black racial slur.

But an arbitrator last month said termination was overkill because the teacher only muttered the slur under his breath, declaring that the teacher — who admitting using the word when he was "growing up" — is "not a racist."

According to several 7th grade students interviewed during the district’s investigation, Bassetti said something to the effect of “I’m done with these n-----s” or “I’m not trying to deal with these n-----s,” after he confronted an unruly student in class.

Bassetti has denied using the word and pointed out that the student in question was white.

A state Department of Education arbitrator, however, concluded last month that the teacher did in fact use the racial slur but disagreed that he should be fired.

“The incident was not premeditated. He did not intend for his thoughts expressed to himself be heard (sic) by students; he did not intend to communicate to students. He was muttering to himself, under his breath,” arbitrator Peter Adomeit wrote on Aug. 23.

“Balancing all of these factor (sic), discharge is too severe, disproportionat (sic) to the offense. Mr. Bassetti did not engage unbecoming conduct (sic). Mr. Bassetti is not a racist.”

It is not clear whether the district intends to appeal the decision to the state commissioner of education. District Superintendent Zenaida Cobian did not return requests for comment on Tuesday and the district’s attorney, Jeffrey Caccese, declined to comment on Tuesday.

Bassetti was suspended with pay following the complaint against him in February.

Adomeit’s arbitration decision says that Bassetti was improperly denied union representation during his interview with Assistant Vice Principal Roy Wright Jr.

Wright testified that Bassetti made the situation worse by arguing that he could not have used the N-word because the student to whom he supposedly was referring was white.

According to the arbitrator, Wright misinterpreted this to mean that Bassetti would have found the word appropriate to use if the student had been black. The arbitrator calls this argument “absurd.”

Moreover, the arbitrator said, Wright should have recused himself “when it became evident that he was so deeply and emotionally involved that it impaired the investigation and his judgment and led to the filing of an illogical complaint.”

The arbitrator, citing an Amazon.com review of a book about the N-word, noted that the word can “provoke in some African Americans an immediate, visceral reaction. So when Assistant Vice Principal Wright, during his investigatory interview with Mr. Bassetti, showed such a reaction when just discussing the word, it was understandable.”

Without citing any expert opinion or scientific works, the arbitrator excused the teacher for forgetting that he had used the N-word in class because he said it under his breath, meaning that “these fleeting thoughts, self-articulated, are stored in short-term memory,” therefore, “not remembering what he said to himself is understandable and hardly unusual.”

“From this I conclude that Mr. Bassetti was not lying when he denied saying” the slur because he “mistakenly believe[d]” his denial to be true, Adomeit wrote.

The district’s tenure charges argued that Bassetti could not continue as a teacher because returning him to the classroom “would cause acrimony” with students, staff and community. The Penns Grove Middle School’s student body is about a third black and a third Hispanic.

The arbitrator disagreed.

“Mr. Bassetti did not direct his comment outward. He was saying softly under this (sic) breath to himself, not the students. Reinstatement would not violate the public trust. No student said he or her (sic) was unsafe,” Adomeit wrote.

The arbitrator said that upholding the termination based on muttering the racial slur would create a new precedent for firing a teacher: “If you so much as breathe to yourself the word ‘n,’ with no intention to communicate it to others, but are overheard by some student, even if you never intended them to hear, even if you have never said ‘n’ to students in 14 years, your intent is irrelevant, and your spotless record is irrelevant, and you shall be terminated for the first offense.”

“The impact on Mr. Massetti’s career would be devastating,” the arbitrator added. “He has good teaching ability, has good evaluation, is initiates (sic) regular contact with parents of struggling students, tried to help the students improve, hold (sic) all students to high standards, sets limits and adheres to them, and encourages students to meet the standards, regardless of background.”

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

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