A Black parent is suing Los Angeles Unified, the second largest school district in America, for civil rights violations, claiming that her daughter’s school educated kids about slavery by having them pick cotton.
According to the lawsuit, Rashunda Pitts’ daughter, then 13 years old, was ridiculed by school employees at Laurel Span School, causing her severe emotional pain and anxiety.
In October of 2017, Pitts allegedly saw a cotton field near her daughter’s Hollywood school. School authorities told her that her daughter’s class was studying Frederick Douglass’ autobiography and that the field had been planted so that the pupils could get “‘real life experience’ of what it was like to be a slave by ‘picking cotton,'” according to the lawsuit.
Officials at Pitts’ school apparently agreed with her when she voiced her concerns that the initiative was “culturally offensive” when she told them about it. In response to Pitts’ request for the field to be removed within 24 hours, school administrators responded they would remove it but hoped to do so by the end of the week or the following.
The lawsuit claims that the school made false statements to the press in an attempt to “cover up the discriminatory conduct” after administrators had spoken to Pitts about the incident.
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The school replied, “We regret that an instructional activity in the garden at Laurel School was construed as culturally insensitive,” and that “tending to the garden” with fruits and vegetables had been a longstanding practice that was not used for historical reenactments. When school officials learned that a parent was worried about the cotton plant, they took swift action and got rid of it.
After becoming “quiet and reclusive” in the weeks preceding up to the incident, Pitts claims her daughter told her she was frightened to inform her mother about the project for fear of “retaliation” from her teachers.
While she was not required to participate, she did saw other children do so and “talk of the project in school worried her and she [was] appalled at the prospect of having to ‘pick cotton’,” she informed her mother. According to the complaint, the school should have gotten parental consent and notification before moving forward with the project.
Pitts claims her daughter experienced racial and gender-based discrimination as a result of the initiative and the school’s response. The lawsuit claims that “when she thinks about the Cotton Picking Project, she suffers uncontrollable anxiety attacks and has [had] spells of sadness.”
We have reached out to both Pitts’ lawyer and the Los Angeles Unified School District for comment, but have not heard back either time frame.
There has been a lot of pushback against similar initiatives to teach about slavery in classrooms. Earlier this year, authorities in New York stated that they were investigating a white teacher who reportedly instructed his seventh grade class, which consisted largely of students of color, to harvest cotton seeds and wear handcuffs as part of a lecture on slavery.
Their daughter’s teacher in Indiana allegedly told the class to draw a black person harvesting cotton during Black History Month as part of an assignment about living in the 1800s.
According to a report in USA Today, insensitive assignments about slavery can traumatize students and demonstrate how the United States has failed to adequately and appropriately teach the complex topic.
Unfortunately, “(slavery is) addressed often in ways that are either marginalizing or it’s the only way that Black people… are brought into the curriculum,” says Keffrelyn Brown, a professor of cultural studies in education at the University of Texas at Austin.
Brown said that slavery was something that could never be recreated and that its revival would be undesirable. Irritation caused by “the history itself” is downplayed.
A representative for the Los Angeles Unified School District has stated that the district does not provide comment on cases that are currently being litigated.