A group of teachers was suspended from a Sun Prairie middle school Monday after assigning a homework activity which asked sixth-grade students to determine how they would “punish” a slave.
The assignment was designed to teach Patrick Marsh Middle school students the guidelines of the Hammurabi Code, a set of laws which were used in ancient Mesopotamia, according to a joint statement from Principal Rebecca Zahn and Assistant Principal Amy Shernecker. The assignment included a question which read: “A slave stands before you. This slave has disrespected his master by telling him, ‘You are not my master!’ How will you punish this slave?”
The wording of the assignment came directly from Teachers Pay Teachers, a website which features lesson plans that teachers may buy or sell, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. The lesson has since been removed from the website.
Dazarrea Evins, a parent of a student in the class, initially contacted the CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, Michael Johnson, to raise awareness about the question. Johnson then posted a photo of the question to his Facebook page and contacted Sun Prairie Area School District Superintendent Brad Saron, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
Saron, in collaboration with Assistant Superintendent for Teaching, Learning & Equity Stephanie Leonard-Witte and Assistant Superintendent for Operations Janet Rosseter, released a letter to parents which called the lesson “a grave error in judgement” and explained that an investigation would begin immediately after the district became aware of the incident.
“Once we learned of this activity, we immediately stopped any further teaching of the lesson and promptly began an investigation,” the statement said. “In our preliminary findings, we have determined the lesson was not a part of our district curriculum and therefore, no student should participate in or complete the assignment.”
The letter additionally noted that the “small group” of teachers involved in the lesson have been put on administrative leave while an investigation takes place. The exact number of teachers involved remains unknown, according to the Associated Press.
Zahn and Shernecker also addressed criticisms regarding the racially insensitive nature of the assignment in a separate statement released the day of the incident.
“We regret that this assignment was not racially conscious and did not align with our district’s mission and vision of equity,” Zahn and Shernecker said in the statement. “We know that it caused harm to our students and their families. Our intent missed the mark, and for that we are deeply sorry. Going forward we will be sure to think critically about whether our intent matches our impact.”
According to UW-Madison Associate Professor Bianca Baldridge, this incident is consistent with the long history of anti-Blackness in the American education system.
“I think that there has to be an acknowledgement and an understanding that US systems of education were never intended for anybody who wasn’t a property owning white man,” Baldridge said in an interview with the Daily Cardinal. “And because of that, embedded within the way that schools are organized, you’re always going to come up against racist incidents.”
Baldridge voiced her opinion that school districts should dedicate additional resources towards ongoing professional development that helps teachers gain a greater understanding of racial sensitivity.
“I think that school districts should mandate that teachers do ongoing professional development,” Baldridge said. “I don’t believe that one-off, one time diversity day — that’s never enough. I think that school districts have to be committed to eliminating anti-blackness, racism and white supremacy in schools.”
Baldridge also stressed the importance of ensuring that the teachers involved are held accountable for bringing racially insensitive material into the classroom.
“I don’t know if we’re trying to make people feel better by calling it an ‘error in judgement,’” Baldridge said. “It was anti-black. It was harmful, and that teacher needs to be held accountable for that. For the harm that was done to not just all those students, but other students who hear about that. It never should have happened.”