Loudoun County

Virginia Students Told to Be Slaves for Black History Month Gym Activity: NAACP

The school principal apologized to parents and said the "lesson was culturally insensitive"

Teachers at a Loudoun County, Virginia, elementary school instructed students to pretend to be slaves during a gym class activity for Black History Month, the president of a local NAACP chapter says.

Madison's Trust Elementary School students participated in an "insensitive" activity during their physical education classes, Principal David Stewart said in a letter sent on Feb. 12 apologizing to parents.

"The lesson was culturally insensitive to our students and families. I extend my sincerest apology to our students and school community," Stewart said in the letter.

Loudoun County Public Schools spokesman Wayde Byard said the gym class began with a lesson about the Underground Railroad as part of Black History Month. Byard said all students in the exercise, including minorities, were asked to act as members of the Underground Railroad but didn't specifically say students were asked to be slaves.

Students in grades 3-5, including African-American students, were then split into groups and challenged to overcome a physical obstacle. Some of the students pretended they were escaped slaves, the NAACP said.

Byard said the school system received about 10 complaints from families.

"It's awful," Loudoun NAACP Chapter President Michelle Thomas said. "It's really insulting. It makes me feel unsafe because I have kids in Loudoun County Public Schools."

Thomas said three teachers crafted the activity with the oversight of a school administrator.

"It shows that there's some implicit bias problems right here at this school," she said.

Stewart said the content covered during the activity would be retaught to students "within an appropriate and respectful context."

"A next step for us as a school involves the formation of an equity/culturally responsive team which will be comprised of school personnel and parent representatives," Stewart said. They said the content will be taught to students again.

Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Eric Williams said in a statement Friday the school system will make the following changes to address address racism, cultural insensitivity and inequity:

  • Creating an "Equity and Cultural Competence Specialist" position for fiscal year 2020. "This person will organize cultural competence and implicit bias training for all teachers and administrators. Previously, this training had been optional for teachers and administrators, and it will now be required," Williams said.
  • An outside expert will conduct an equity audit this spring to gather perspectives on racial and cultural insensitivity. The school system will then devise a longterm plan based on the results.
  • The school board's budget for 2020 includes a position "dedicated to equity in education."
  • The school board will create a group to address equity in education.

"We acknowledge that this incident at Madison’s Trust is a symptom of a broader issue. The diversity in Loudoun County is one of our greatest strengths, but Loudoun County is also a place where equity has proven a challenge for many decades," Williams said. "We have struggled with inequities in student achievement gaps, discipline disproportionality, underrepresentation of minority students in advanced programs and courses, and the lack of a diversified teacher workforce."

The incident comes as several top officials in Virginia, including Gov. Ralph Northam, have been embroiled in a blackface scandal.

Thomas said she has met with Stewart and with parents to try to come up with solutions to "remedy this racist act."

"I'm satisfied with the progress that we're making," she said. 

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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