A Californian high school has come under fire for a controversial history project which involved students reenacting slavery.
Whitney High School in Cerritos, California, billed the project as a ‘unique learning experience’ which they said would help students understand the horrors of slavery.
In an email to parents last week, teachers told how they would ‘sternly tell the children to line up’ then make them lie on the floor in the dark, ‘shoulder to shoulder’ as though they were in a slave ship.
Then, the children would be made to watch scenes from the film Roots. Staff said the point of the exercise was ‘for them to feel uncomfortable, mistreated’ and ‘like a piece of property’.
They pleaded with parents not to warn their child about the unorthodox lesson because they said it was ‘more powerful as a surprise’.
In an email to parents last week, staff at Whitney High School in Cerritos, California, described the controversial reenactment as a ‘unique classroom activity’ and asked parents not to tell their child about it on order not to ruin the surprise
Parents inundated the school, whose students are mostly white, Hispanic and Asian, with complaints, claiming the exercise would be traumatizing and unnecessary.
It was pulled from the curriculum after a barrage of complaints this week.
In the original email to parents, teacher Kevin Harp of himself and two other white history teachers: ‘In order to help students understand the psychological impact of slavery on Africans brought over to this country, all of us do a simulation activity in our classes that tries to recreate the voyage that slaves went on across the Atlantic Ocean, on their way to the new world.
‘We will be acting as slave ship captains and your son/daughter will be pretending to be a slave.
‘When class starts, we will sternly tell them to line up outside the room, use masking tape to “tie” their wrists together, make them lay on the ground inside the room (which will be dark), shoulder to shoulder with each other (boys and girls in separate rows) and then while they lay there, have them watch a clip from the film Roots.’
Parent Sharde Carrington shared the email on Facebook.
She also posted her response to the school informing them that she did want her son to participate in the exercise which she deemed ‘minimizes American slavery’ and ‘degrades’ the children.
Parent Sharde Carrington (right) complained, calling the exercise ‘insensitive’ and asking that her son not be included. She was shocked to receive a response from social studies head Derek Jeans (left) who not only defended the exercise but said he had only ever received ‘universal appreciation’ for it and vowed to carry on with it despite her concerns
Staff told parents that once the children were on the floor with their wrists tied up in tape, they would be shown scenes from the 1988 film Roots (above)
She sent a lengthy response to the school, telling them: ‘You cannot sum up the experience of slavery with masking tape and a movie clip.’
The woman said black children were ‘sadly underrepresented’ at the school and said reenacting slavery was ‘severely insensitive’.
‘Would you simulate rape in order to encourage sensitive towards its survivors? Will the children pretend to be in Japanese Internment Camps as well?
When class starts, we will sternly tell them to line up outside the room, use masking tape to “tie” their wrists together, make them lay on the ground inside the room (which will be dark), shoulder to shoulder with each other (boys and girls in separate rows) and then while they lay there, have them watch a clip from the film Roots
Whitney High School teacher’s email to parents
‘You refer to the kidnap and murder of enslaved Africans as s “voyage to the new world”. If you are unwilling to call the harrowing, vile experience suffered by Africans exactly what it was, you do the children a disservice.’
She was shocked to receive another email from Derek Jeans, the head of the social studies department, who defended the exercise and claimed her complaints were the only ones he’d ever received.
Jeans said he had been ‘universally’ praised for bringing the exercise to the school 10 years ago and argued: ‘We do not minimize the experience of slavery, but rather attempt in a very small manor, to bring a more personal understanding of such a tragic and terrible event that occurred in our history.’
He said the topic was ‘distant, poorly misunderstood and over-discussed’ and said the exercise was designed to ‘immerse a student population that is not majority black into the harrowing world your ancestors faced suffered through’.
A drawing depicts the crowded interior of a slave ship in the 1700s. Staff said they wanted to recreate the atmosphere for students in order to bring them a ‘personal understanding’ of the history of slavery
The school was inundated with complaints on social media from people who labeled the exercise ‘appalling’ and ‘completely nuts’
‘We would never want to traumatize your son but I believe that in our current climate as a country, we need to take a hard look at these times in our past, and we as a department think that this is a very valid and appropriate way to bring history out of the textbook and into the lives of our kids,’ he said.
Fuelled further in her outrage, Ms Carrington posted his email online and accused him of ‘mansplaining’ the issue without taking in to consideration any of her complaints.
High school principal John Briquelet has since decided to remove it from its curriculum
She was inundated with support from other parents who labeled the exercise ‘disgusting’ and ‘gross’.
‘The judgement of these ostensibly white teachers is beyond poor,’ said one person.
‘I am so disgusted with the school. So incredibly arrogant and insensitive. This is not just mansplaining; it’s whitesplaining,’ another said.
‘You can’t tell your kid what’s going to happen, so they’re just going to show up to school and be bound and lined up. They’re going to think they’re about to die. How is that not traumatic?’ another asked.
Despite their complaints, the exercise took place last week and involved students from three different classes – almost 100 children.
It has since been removed from the curriculum after being reviewed by the school’s principal who finally conceded that it was ‘outdated’ despite Jeans’ claims that it was an effective learning tool.
Dr. Mary Sieu, the ABC schools superintendent, told DailyMail.com on Tuesday: ‘The principal felt strongly that the lesson itself was dated and we now have a new framework.’
Whitney High School has around 1,000 students of whom 70 percent are Asian, four percent are white, seven percent are Hispanic and two percent are black
She did not reveal whether Jeans would face or had face any disciplinary action for defending it, saying only: ‘None of the teachers are there to inflict any harm on the students.
‘The intent was to about to create some sort of empathy. It’s about the history.’
She could not tell DailyMail.com how this year’s students reacted to the lesson last week but said the exercise was popular in schools in the late 80s when Roots was released.
The film stars Avery Brooks and tells the story of a free black man who helps other slaves escape via the Underground Railroad, a network of secret passages.
Other schools have sparked controversy in the past with their use of Underground Railroad reenactments in classes with students as young as those in the 5th grade.
Whitney High School is a public school and has around 1,000 students between grades seven and 12.
Seventy percent of its students are Asian, 8.6 per cent are Hispanic, 4.7 percent are white and only 2 per cent are black.