Arlington Public Schools

Family Explores Legal Action After Student Forced to Pick Cotton in Class

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A mother frustrated by what she calls a lack of resolution to an issue at her son's school is exploring legal action.

Students in an eighth grade French class at Gunston Middle School in Arlington were told to put Vaseline on their noses and see how many cotton balls they could pick out of a bucket of water with their noses.

Sidney Rousey, the only Black student in the class, told the substitute teacher he didn’t feel comfortable playing the game, but his mother says he was made to play anyway.

“There was eight or seven other games on the list, and the teacher could pick out whatever game they wanted, and this specific teacher chose that game,” said Sidney’s mother, Keisha Kirkland.

It was intended to be a fun, camaraderie-building exercise, but NAACP attorney Phillip Thompson says without historical context, it has the opposite effect of building camaraderie.

“They shouldn’t be dealing anything with cotton and African American kids unless you’re talking about slavery and the impact of the cotton industry on slavery,” he said.

After Sidney complained, his mother says he was confronted in class by the same teacher the next day. Then he was pulled from the class and told to spend that period in the office.

Things have changed since then, but Sidney’s mother says it wasn’t for the better.

“He is being sat in a library for that subject, and roughly 51 minutes he sits there alone,” she said. “Not one adult checks in on him.”

He’s still responsible for class assignments, which he completes online from the school with access to an online mentor.

The family’s attorney, former Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, says Sidney has been taunted at school sporting events and elsewhere.

“We had somebody call him a cotton picker,” he said. “Someone came up and said that to him in school.”

They’ve attended parent-teacher conferences since then but there’s been no real resolution or discussion of this matter.

A spokesperson for Arlington Public Schools says they were not made aware of the harassment at that meeting, but that they’ve had a counselor monitoring Sidney’s progress, which his family’s attorneys question. They say the first step should be an apology.

“I’ve gotten one personal from a close teacher, but that’s about it,” Kirkland said. “We shouldn’t have to go one more week with this kind of activity, and frankly, if we do, we’re exploring all of our legal options at this moment,” Fairfax said.

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