Following on a series of racial incidents in the South Orange-Maplewood School District in recent weeks, parents have now been informed that a fifth grade substitute teacher led a mock in-class slave auction at Jefferson School last week, as first reported by Maplewoodian.com.
According to a spokeswoman for the South Orange-Maplewood District, “The activity was not part of the curriculum, not part of the teacher’s assignment, not condoned by the teacher, not authorized by the district.”
The spokeswoman added, “Given that this happened while a substitute teacher was supervising the class, administrators will look again at training and improved supervisory protocols for substitutes.”
The detailed district response reads:
“The culminating assignment for the Colonial America unit in this teacher’s class was to choose a colony to research and then create a PowerPoint presentation with a partner about that colony. Students submitted their plan to the teacher, signed off on by their parents. At no point was an enactment of a slave auction proposed as part of any student’s plan. The projects were due on the day that the teacher was out, and nothing should have been added during the school day.
“Upon hearing about the impromptu re-enactment and video while she was out, the teacher proactively reached out to parents to inform them not only of what had happened, but also how she was addressing this with students. Her letter shows that she took the incident seriously, addressed the ‘impact it had upon the students,’ the ‘gravity of this part in our history,’ and connected it to a larger discussion about social justice. She asked for partnership from families in helping reinforce these messages at home as well.”
Questions and comments about the incident permeated tonight’s Board of Education meeting, including a statement from South Orange Trustee Deborah Davis Ford, as the incident received coverage from ABC7 news.
ABC7 reported on the letter that Jefferson School Principal Kimberly Hutchinson sent home to parents and guardians stating, “When we had the opportunity to view the full video last week, we were concerned to see how lightly students treated the topic. The jovial nature of the video suggests that either there is a lack of understanding about the true barbarity of a slave auction, or a lack of awareness of how treating this topic comically is offensive.”
“We believe that additional work remains to help our students consider how their actions can have a negative impact on others, even if unintended, how joking about slavery is disrespectful to all Americans, especially to the African American community, and that certain matters should be treated with a degree of heightened sensitivity.
“We thank you for your support and appreciate all of the feedback that we have received. It has led us to develop a plan that that we feel confident will turn this unfortunate event into an opportunity for our students to learn and grow. It is important to note that although we want students to reflect upon and own the roles that they have played, this process will not allow for any students to be targeted or shamed in any way. We ask you to speak with your children about their feelings regarding the video, how our choices can impact others, and ways that they can help to foster a sense of respect and belonging for all members of our learning community.”
The mock auction incident follows on controversy related to slave auction posters displayed at South Mountain School, 4th grade students at South Mountain chanting the name “Hitler,” two incidents of racist graffiti in a South Orange Middle School bathroom, and students participating in a Nazi gesture at Maplewood Middle School.
The incidents prompted a letter from Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Ramos and Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker noting the towns’ pride in their “diversity and commitment to inclusion.”
“In an increasingly divided America, we have consciously chosen SOMA as the community to foster our children’s social and educational growth,” read the letter. “In doing so, we must embrace all the opportunities and challenges inherent in striving for an inclusive and equitable community.”
Ramos has promised a town hall to address the issues. A date has not yet been announced.