A Black mother in Los Angeles is suing the city’s Unified School District (LAUSD) and the Board of Education after she said she discovered that her daughter participated in a controversial history lesson about cotton picking. Rashunda Pitts’ lawsuit is the latest negative attention for a school accused of racially insensitive classroom exercises.
Officials from the school created the questionable project to help students “identify with the real-life experience of African American slaves,” the Los Angeles Times reported. However, the mother claims that the school did not notify or obtain permission from parents before signing off on the inappropriate lesson.
In her suit, Pitts claimed she was shocked to see a cotton field in front of the Laurel Cinematic Arts Creative Tech Magnet as she was dropping her daughter off at the elementary school in 2017. At the time, Pitts said she tried to address the issue with the school’s principal Amy Diaz but instead, she was directed to the assistant Principal Brian Wisniewski, who tried to justify the culturally insensitive lesson.
According to Wisniewski, Pitts’ daughter, who is identified in the suit as S.W., was reading the autobiography of Frederick Douglass with her social justice class at the time of the incident. Wisniewski told the concerned mother that “picking cotton was one of the experiences” Douglass wrote about. S.W.’s social justice teacher required the students to pick cotton as a part of the lesson. Pitts’s daughter did not participate in the activity but she was still required to observe her classmates engage in the odd role-play lesson.
“Completely incensed with the idea that the school would have her daughter and other children pick cotton as a school exercise to identify with the real-life experience of African-American slaves, Ms. Pitts expressed her disappointment and hurt in regards to the culturally insensitive and incompetent project,” the suit states. When Pitts finally spoke to Mrs. Diaz about removing the cotton field, the principal allegedly told her that the school would try to remove it at the “end of the week or the following week, but couldn’t make any promises.”
According to the suit, S.W. was afraid to inform her mother about the lesson because she was worried the school would retaliate against her. Pitts said her daughter “has uncontrollable anxiety attacks and experiences bouts of depression when she thinks about the cotton picking project, ” according to the suit, NBC Los Angeles reported.
In a statement, school district officials tried to play down the incident. “Tending to the garden where a variety of fruits, vegetables, and other plants grow is a school-wide tradition that has been in place for years and has never been used as a tool to re-enact historical events,” the statement read. “When school administrators became aware of a parent’s concern about the cotton plant, they responded immediately by removing the plant.” However, Pitts alleges that the statement “directly contradicts” what the assistant principal told her about the lesson.
LAUSD later released a statement acknowledging that the “instructional activity” was “discriminatory and harmful to the students.” The statement added, according to the suit:
“When school administrators became aware of a parent’s concern about the cotton plant, they responded immediately by removing the plant.”
Sadly, a few other schools across the country have been slammed for subjecting students to racially insensitive class projects that broach the topic of slavery in an inappropriate manner.
Rochester Teacher Slammed For Racist Cotton Picking Lesson
Back in April, a white teacher in Rochester named Patrick Rausch was slammed by parents after he allegedly required his predominately Black class to pick cotton and put handcuffs on during a social studies lesson. The incident occurred at the Rochester School of the Arts.
One of the students’ parents took to social media to complain about the activity after her daughter informed her about the lesson.
“He made a mockery out of slavery,” a concerned mother named Precious Morris told news outlets, according to AP News.“I don’t have a problem with you teaching our kids about slavery and what our ancestors went through and how they had to pick cotton, ” she continued. “Our teachers back in the day told us that, but they don’t bring in cotton and make you pick cotton seeds out of cotton.”
Morris’s daughter refused to participate in the activity when Rausch brought out handcuffs and shackles.
“He was like, ‘Do it. It’s for a good grade,’” the young student told reporters, noting how when she refused to participate, Rausch then threatened to send her to the principal’s office. One student alleged that Rausch made the class call him “Massah” as they were conducting the activity. According to reports, Rausch allegedly allowed the white students in the class to work on their Chromebooks as the Black students picked seeds out of the cotton during the assignment. Black students were not given the option to forgo the activity. Rausch was placed on administrative leave after parents demanded for his teaching license be revoked.
In June, Rausch filed a lawsuit against Morris, Save Rochester Inc, and one other parent for making false allegations about the cotton picking lesson. In his suit, Rausch said he brought the unprocessed cotton to his seventh-grade social studies class to demonstrate the difficulty of removing cotton seeds by hand. Rausch claimed he made it clear to students that participation was voluntary.
“The students — both black and white — were eager to touch the cotton and try to remove the seeds from the cotton, and most chose to do so,” the suit states, according to The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. “Rausch was careful to explain to the students that he understood that some people may not be comfortable touching the cotton or picking the seeds out because such work is historically associated with slavery, that he in no way was trying to make them feel like slaves, and that participation was entirely voluntary,” the statement added.
North Carolina Teacher Resigns After Allegedly Calling Black Students “Field Slaves” During Lesson
In October 2021, a teacher at a North Carolina charter school resigned after students and parents complained about several “racially insensitive” lessons. During a class about the U.S. Constitution, the teacher who remains unnamed asked her class of Black eighth-graders to stand up and say “that if it wasn’t for the Constitution,” they would be her “field slaves,” according to CNN. The incident occurred at Winterville Charter Academy.
School officials said they acted immediately after parents raised concerns about the controversial lesson in a Facebook group. After an outpour of backlash, the teacher handed in her resignation, and school officials said she would not be returning to campus. Winterville vowed to issue cultural sensitivity training to the resigned teacher along with current and future staff.
“These situations concern us, too. Our school culture is built on one of acceptance, love, and respect to serve all children and their families. The inner workings of our school are surrounded by an intentional effort to eliminate implicit and explicit bias,” the school’s principal Annastasia Ryan said in a statement.