This week, a veteran teacher on Long Island gave an assignment to her students that required them to create “funny captions” for Reconstruction Era photos from United States history. The teacher is white and, yes, that is very important to note. The assignment would have gone unchecked, had it not been for the grandmother of a student given the assignment who spotted it and bought it to the attention of her Facebook community who, in turn, bought it to the attention of the Freeport School District Middle School administrators of the school where this act of terror took place.
How many times are we going to have to go through this? How many times are Black students going to be subjected to terrorism at the hands of white educators? How many times are these sub-par educators (I honestly wouldn’t even call them that) going to get off the hook with a measly apathetic apology that only comes after they got caught and which amounts to nothing in comparison to the emotional and psychological harmed caused?
I am telling you as an educator myself that there is no way a competent teacher could not see the inherent problem with such an assignment so any apology given is nothing more than lip service given to cover their behinds and hopefully save their jobs.
According to NBCNY:
Dr. Kishore Kuncham, the superintendent of Freeport Schools, called the lesson “poorly conceived and executed … an insensitive trivialization” that is unacceptable. The instructor has been placed on administrative leave, and issued an apology through the district.“I apologize for my insensitive words and actions. It is my responsibility to exercise the highest degree of care and thought…I failed to do so,” the apology read.”
This is not the first time this teacher gave this assignment. Students from years back came forward and confessed that they were given the same assignment and, out of fear of retaliation in the form of failing the mandatory Social Studies class, remained silent or spoke only amongst themselves about how hurtful the assignment was.
I’m mad about this. I’m livid. The news of this case comes at a time when Teaching Tolerance reminds us on the cover of this quarter’s magazine that not only do Black Lives Matter, but Black Minds Matter, too. The mental health implications of being asked to make a joke out of the pain and suffering of the back-breaking free labor that enslaved Africans endured in American history is real, serious, and, all too often, goes unspoken. To be a fly on the wall of that classroom when that assignment was modeled and explained? I can vividly imagine the looks of shock on the faces of the students subjected to this hateful act. No child should ever have to go through this at all, least of all at school. Yet it is happening at rates more undocumented than documented. There is simply no excuse for such a lesson to go on. There are too many resources available free of charge to assist teachers with teaching about the Reconstruction Era without resorting to making a joke out of it.
What’s at risk is our children’s lives — literally. According to Teaching Tolerance,
“Black people, including youth, are less likely to receive adequate care for mental health issues for a number of reasons: disparities in access to care, stigma about mental illness and lack of culturally competent mental health practitioners. While black children between the ages of 13 and 17 are 59 percent less likely to die by suicide than white teens, the suicide rate for black children between the ages of 5 and 12 is about twice as high as that of their white peers.“
The Reconstruction lesson in question took place in a classroom of middle schoolers. Middle schoolers are anywhere from 11 to 14 years old. It is not far-fetched to suppose that a lesson like this could tip a child — a Black child who has quite possibly already experienced an adverse childhood experience (A.C.E.) — over the edge and into the suicide zone. Black people have been so marginalized in this country and to have a person certified to teach students further contribute to that marginalization is cause alone for her to lose her certification and never stand before children as their teacher ever again.
I am pleading with the Freeport School District to be a first responder in this emergency situation and send a strong message that teachers in their district who harm their students — mentally, physically, or otherwise — have to go. Anything other than that decision makes them complicit in the assassination of their Black students’ minds and spirits, a crime punishable by….you be the judge.
An earlier version of this post ran on the New York School Talk blog here.