‘It ended up being racist’: Teacher describes resignation from Crete Public Schools

Nikki Menard left her job at the direction of school administrators this spring after a lesson on Alexander Hamilton turned to discussions of slavery and racism

By: - September 13, 2023 5:45 am

Nikki Menard of Lincoln has a 25-year teaching career. She served five years in Crete Public Schools up until this spring when a classroom incident led to her resigning from the district. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

CRETE, Neb. — A letter written by Alexander Hamilton in 1779 urging Congress to allow slaves to become soldiers led this spring to the resignation of Crete High School’s only Native American instructor and discussions of racism.

Nikki Menard, who taught honors English, led the Hamilton-focused lesson Jan. 16 by walking her junior class through how to use primary resources. It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

One girl raised her hand and asked why Crete High did not celebrate the state and federal holiday, Menard recalled. The teacher suggested that if the students wanted change, they should ask for it, so the students began writing an all-class letter to the Board of Education and school superintendent.

Students say in a one-page letter that they were learning about Hamilton and the importance of being vocal in their beliefs. The letter offers specific requests for how the district and its different grade levels could honor the civil rights leader.

“By not recognizing this day, we feel we are not giving Dr. King the justice he deserves. Therefore, ignoring Dr. King’s wishes and accomplishments,” the students wrote to Principal Cory Bohling. “The most frustrating part is that the day has not been recognized at all.”

Menard said she created the document file and shared it with the students. She also answered questions about sentence structure or tone. However, she said, she did not add any specific thoughts on what should be included.

“There really wasn’t anyone that had stopped or didn’t want to be a part of it until the very end when we were trying to decide who was going to send it,” Menard said.

‘A complete surprise’

Menard described the class discussions as “buzzing.” Principal Bohling — within an hour of receiving the letter — told a student the letter was “very well written,” that he would support the class in sending it to the board and superintendent and asked the student to let him know how he could help the process.

The next morning, Menard found herself in Bohling’s office.

“I thought I was going in and going to get congratulated because I had done something cool,” Menard recalled with a laugh. “No, it was a complete surprise.”

Some students had told their parents Menard had implied that Crete Superintendent Joshua McDowell and the Crete Board of Education were “racist.” Some students’ parents were school officials, including Bohling, McDowell and a board member.

The Crete Public Schools board meets Aug. 14, 2023, in Crete, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Menard denied the allegations. But Menard said Bohling kept pressing her. She recalls walking away from the meeting after telling Bohling and the assistant principal, “I didn’t call you racist, and this wasn’t supposed to be a racist thing. But I’ll tell you what: This, right here, what we’re doing right now, feels like racism.”

“What was maybe not racism, that whole situation just spun around and it ended up being racist,” Menard told the Nebraska Examiner. 

Three days later, on Jan. 20, McDowell met with Menard and asked for her resignation. He cited the comments she allegedly made calling school officials racist in front of students and a handful of other alleged federal, state and local policy violations. McDowell said her conduct amounted to insubordination and unprofessionalism.

Menard refused to resign, and a Feb. 22 public hearing was set when the six-member school board would decide on her teaching contract. 

District declined to comment

Citing the incident as a personnel matter, McDowell said in an email he was unable to comment under state law. However, he noted Menard had an opportunity to speak at a public hearing.

“Although I would like to give you more information to provide you with the full context of the underlying situation, I am not permitted to do so by Nebraska law,” McDowell said. “Although it is frustrating not to be able to comment further, I trust you understand and respect our position in this matter.”

Documents obtained by the Nebraska Examiner list a few incidents in the first semester of the 2022-23 school year that district officials planned to present at the Feb. 22 hearing, including Menard repeatedly leaving school prior to her contracted time of 4 p.m. and allowing a student assistant to grade other students’ work. 

Bohling indicated that he had discussed both issues with Menard privately but that she continued to leave school early and allow her assistant to review other students’ work.

Menard did not deny leaving school early but said she also came to work early every day. The district pulled photos from security footage of Menard leaving early on at least three occasions. Menard questioned why they could not pull footage of her from mornings when she arrived at work and why other teachers were not disciplined for leaving early.

The district said Menard violated the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and disclosed confidential student records by allowing her student assistant to grade papers.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 unanimously decided that peer grading did not violate FERPA. The court stated grades are not final until they are entered in a teacher’s grade book. Menard said her assistant never formally graded the papers. Instead, the student highlighted grammatical errors or other issues for Menard, who did the actual grading.

‘I just loved being down there’

Menard said she had experienced many moments of joy in her 25 years of teaching, including her five years at Crete. She’d come to know her classroom as the “Island of Misfit Toys,” a refuge for students from all walks of life.

Nikki Menard of Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Menard recalls a group of boys who hated reading coming to her classroom for lunch. After multiple days of reading one chapter after another with Menard, the group finished a 400-page novel. One student remarked it was the first book they’d read.

“Those were the moments that I just loved being down there and being a part of their lives,” Menard said.

Menard personally chose Crete Public Schools because its student population is about 66% Hispanic, and she had primarily worked in at-risk environments and with students of color. She was one of three teachers of color during the 2022-23 school year at Crete High.

“I know what it feels like to be a kid in an environment where I am the only one that is different,” Menard said. “I never want kids to feel the way I did growing up.”

Menard’s attorney told her she was likely to succeed at the Feb. 22 hearing. But she was feeling “waves of anxiety” about returning to the classroom. Two days before the hearing, she decided to accept a counter settlement, agreeing to let the district buy out her contract. 

‘I was walking on eggshells’

Two character witnesses were prepared to vouch for Menard at the February hearing: Albert Maxey Sr., a longtime Lincoln police officer and former Husker basketball player, and Marilyn Johnson-Farr, an education professor at Doane University.

Maxey said he’s known Menard since the early 2000s, when they were both with Lincoln Public Schools. He described her as sincere and concerned about every student. He said the Crete incident put Menard in a situation she couldn’t win.

“They looked for anything they could to make life more difficult for her than anyone else,” Maxey said.

Johnson-Farr, who instructs teachers of color, described Menard as calm and a visionary and said that a lot of times people of color are invited to spaces but are asked to “shrink,” or not be their authentic selves.

Marilyn Johnson-Farr, an education professor at Doane University in Crete, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“And when we shrink, we lose a piece of ourselves,” Johnson-Farr said. 

Teachers of color are often aware of the barriers they face and monitor themselves accordingly, Johnson-Farr added. She said it’s important for students to see diversity in their developing years because it affirms that people of color are making contributions.

Menard, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe from the Pine Ridge Reservation, talked about a class assignment she’d given earlier in January for students to identify a historical figure they’d like to meet and why. 

“I would like to meet a random Native American because they are prone to disease,” one student wrote. “I don’t look up to Native Americans, but I find them interesting because they are so prone to diseases.”

Menard, who lives in Lincoln, is a Waverly native and grew up being the only student of color in her classes. She was the only teacher of color at Crete High during her first three years in the district.

Menard said she’s speaking out now to warn teachers of color in smaller communities to be careful, noting continued national conversations around the role of race in the classroom.

“It gets really difficult and you feel really lonely,” Menard said. “I felt like I was walking on eggshells all the time because I didn’t want to upset the administration.” 

District documents offer more insight

Among exhibits prepared for the February hearing, obtained by the Nebraska Examiner, is a document stating that when students indicated during the class discussion that McDowell and the school board were racist, Menard responded, “that thought trickled into my mind as well.” 

Bohling wrote in an exhibit that his issues were that a couple of students were “visibly upset” because their parents had been called racist.

“At no time did she try to stop the conversation or bring it back to what the point of the activity should have been,” Bohling wrote.

Menard said that multiple conversations occurred during the all-class discussion and that she was moving around, talking to different students. She contends that many of her comments the district criticized were taken out of context. She said all the students participated in the discussion and said no student appeared visibly distressed.

Another document listing alleged policy violations includes Crete Policy 6391, which deals with controversial topics and a requirement for impartiality and objectivity as much as possible.

Menard said she interprets the policy as limiting how she can address injustices against her people or other people of color.

“I wouldn’t be in the teaching profession if I didn’t want to make an impact and help change for the better because history has been so bad,” Menard said.

District exhibits allude multiple times to parental complaints. Public records obtained for written communications during the week of MLK Jr. Day or the following month, and documents prepared for the hearing, do not include any parental complaints.

McDowell, Bohling and Crete Public Schools declined to comment further on possible plans for MLK Jr. Day next year.

‘I didn’t do anything wrong’

Maxey, whose wife, JoAnn, was the first Black female state senator in Nebraska and the first Black member of the Lincoln Board of Education, said he understood Menard’s heart and the pain of leaving her job. 

Albert Maxey Sr. in his downtown Lincoln studio including photos and newspaper clippings from when he served on the security detail for Martin Luther King Jr. when King visited Lincoln in 1964. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“It happens to us often. It’s degrading. It hurts. And everything you fight for, it seems like you’ve come to a standstill,” Maxey said.

“I want her [Menard] to hold her head up,” Maxey continued. “Keep a nice smile on her face, remember there are still evil people out there going to try to bring you down and just keep on keeping on.” 

Menard said she’s happy now and in a place where she’s supported. She hopes the Crete district will mark MLK Jr. Day in 2024 and hopes the district moving forward encourages more conscious discussions of race.

“This is my livelihood. This is my career. I didn’t do anything wrong,” Menard said of the Jan. 16 incident. “I think I was empowering students to express their civic duty.”


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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach Wendling is a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, double-majoring in journalism and political science. He has interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C., and has reported for the Nebraska News Service and The Daily Nebraskan.