David Flom wasn't pacing the Eden Prairie sideline Friday night, coaching the Eagles boys basketball team like he had for the previous 16 years.

He was removed from the courtside action, sitting in the stands at Farmington High School as a parent, watching son Joey and his teammates take on the Tigers.

Flom was suspended from coaching by the school district Dec. 8, as it investigates his use of a racial slur during a meeting with players and assistant coaches the previous day. A former assistant coach for Flom has said, in an email sent to Eden Prairie families, that Flom was teaching about responsible use of social media and read the slur as an example of what not to do.

In the 10 days since, Eden Prairie has put Trevor Mbakwe, an assistant coach and assistant activities director, in charge of the basketball team while the investigation continues. Eden Prairie Schools officials have refused to comment beyond acknowledging a complaint was received and an investigation was begun.

Eden Prairie High School finds itself in a maelstrom that raises, again, a question educators have faced before:

Is it ever OK to use a racial slur?

Tia Sheree Gaynor has made racial healing a good portion of her life's work and does now as associate professor of leadership and management at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

"There are different views on the use of racial slurs in learning environments," she said by email. "Some may believe that no matter the situation and no matter the person, there is never a place to say a racial slur in a learning environment. I don't know if I am all the way there. However, if it is to be done in the classroom or other learning environments there are many things to consider before doing so. … Why did the coach feel comfortable enough to say the racial slur? And perhaps more important, what did it bring to the lesson to include the use of the slur?"

It's obvious Flom has detractors. His reading of the slur, Gaynor said, "bothered someone in that room enough that it was brought out of the figurative locker room — so there is something to the fact that someone was so uncomfortable, bothered, and/or hurt that they shared the incident."

It was obvious Friday night that Flom also has supporters. It showed when some among the smattering of Eagles fans gave him hugs and handshakes as he sat in the bleachers in his winter jacket and cap.

Flom, who also has been an elementary school teacher in the district since 2006, has said he cannot comment on the situation during the investigation.

Sam Remus, father of Eden Prairie sophomore player Jackson Remus, is close to Flom's situation because he is president of the Eden Prairie Boys Basketball Association.

"I know he deeply regrets what happened," Remus said. "There wasn't anything malicious about his intent."

Gaynor said that "highlights something that I discuss in my classes and trainings — the difference between intent and impact. Many well-intentioned people have engaged in work that has negative and harmful impacts on others. So while good intentions are great, they are not enough."

Policy is in play

Some school districts have tried policies that entirely prohibit the use of slurs. A zero-tolerance policy on racial slurs put in place by the Madison (Wis.) Metropolitan School District led to several school employees being punished in 2019 and 2020 for using slurs as part of instruction. The policy eventually was deemed unclear and counterproductive by an independent arbitrator.

Minnesota law requires school boards to adopt a policy concerning sexual, religious and racial harassment and violence that conforms to the state's human rights act.

A sampling of policies approved in Eden Prairie, St. Paul and the Yellow Medicine East Schools in Granite Falls finds them to be largely identical in that each prohibits physical or verbal conduct that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working or academic environment. The policies spell out reporting and investigative procedures and the range of disciplinary moves a district might take.

A Star Tribune review of Eden Prairie's policy did not find a specific reference to using a slur for educational purposes.

The case has a parallel in the Twin Cities. In 2019 in St. Paul, a teacher at Highland Park Middle School was placed on leave after being captured on video using a racial slur. She said later she was quoting a student, but the incident brought quick condemnation from the school's principal and Superintendent Joe Gothard.

"We will not be silent in the face of racist language in our schools — and we cannot perpetuate it," they said in a statement then. "We will not make excuses for actions that hurt the students that we as educators have dedicated our lives to serve."

The teacher resigned before disciplinary action could be taken, and she worked with the union to maintain her license, which remained active until it expired in June 2021, state records show.

Watching and waiting

In the gym Friday, Flom nodded in approval, like any parent would, when his son scored on a driving layup. He clapped when others made good plays, as he would have if he were coaching. He's a successful coach, selected as Coach of the Year in 2020, when Eden Prairie went 28-0, by the National High School Coaches Association. His career record is 390-156.

Mbakwe coached the team in a game Friday for the second time since Flom's suspension. Eden Prairie defeated Eastview 71-60 when he coached on the night Flom was suspended. It didn't go as well Friday. Eden Prairie, ranked third in Class 4A, lost 85-60.

Mbakwe, who played for the Gophers in 2010-13, said he couldn't comment on Flom. He did answer a basketball question.

"It was our first road game of the year, and they are a tough team," Mbakwe said. "We didn't play the way we can or the way we will the rest of the season. It was a tough night, no excuses."

The investigation into Flom continues, and those closely involved wait.

"He has been outstanding with our basketball program and in the community," Remus said. "He has a great reputation.

"He is a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion in our program."

Gaynor said in her email reply that there's a chance to gain from the situation. It offers "the school and school district the opportunity to revisit (or build if they aren't already there) ways in which they are willing and committed to protecting their students of color, and other students who have identities that are traditionally marginalized in U.S. society. If the school (and school district) sees the suspension alone as an appropriate response, then they have missed the opportunity to have meaningful, healing conversations with the school and larger community."

Staff writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.