African-American middle school students were forced to act as slaves, pretending to be sold at auction and standing in the darkness of a would-be slave ship, all while enduring racial epithets, a human rights lawsuit filed by a student’s mother claims.
Sandra Baker told the Hartford Courant this week that her daughter, who is black, said she and other students in her seventh grade class were “terrorized” during a field trip to Nature’s Classroom in Charlton, Massachusetts. Parents of the students, who traveled from Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy 45 minutes away, were not told their children would be participating in a slavery reenactment when giving permission for the trip.
The girl told her mother that on the four-day trip in November 2012, the class was forced to pretend to pick cotton, simulate the quiet confinement of riding on a slave ship, and reeenact the Underground Railroad – the network that slaves used to travel north and reach freedom before the American Civil War in 1861.
“I said, ‘How was your trip?’” Barker said. “She started telling me what happened. I was like, ‘What?’ I was stunned…We crossed all our T’s and dotted all our I’s. This, I didn’t see coming.” White instructors, who assumed the roles of slave owners and oppressors, told the students that while on board the “ship,” they would have no choice but to go to the bathroom on each other and would be thrown overboard if they were sick. “I went into a dark room where I had to sit on my bottom with my knees together,” the girl wrote in a statement read by her father this week in front of the Hartford school board. “My legs fell asleep and were hurting.”
She went on to describe how the students were told they would be whipped if they attempted to escape, some even forced to dance for their “masters.”
“I had to hold my head down and could not make eye contact with the white masters,” the 12-year-old stated. “I heard the instructor ask kids behind me to open their mouths so their teeth could be checked. Some were asked to jump up and down.”
Jon Santos, the director of Nature’s Classroom, told The Washington Post that the three-hour exercise was meant to teach students empathy for what slaves were put through, along with lessons about modern day bullying. He denied that racial slurs were part of the curriculum, saying that any employee who uttered such a remark would be fired. The program has been in place for 18 years, he said.
“This is a reenactment of a historical event that has relevance to their day-to-day interaction with their peers and classroom teacher,” Santos said. “How do you feel when this is put upon you? How do you think you should feel when it is put upon someone else?”
A social worker and mediation specialist working for Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy spoke with students earlier this year after they were put through the slavery simulation. An April report seen by the Hartford Courant noted that while some of the students said they have a newfound “appreciation for what we have today,” others were clearly upset.
One student wrote that he “started to believe some of the things the group leaders were saying,” and another wrote that it “did not feel like it was a joke, did not know if the leaders were joking.” Students told the social worker that the staff members – who Santos said average around 25 years of age – used terms such as “Going to get the dogs to eat you” and “Dumb dark-skinned Negro person, how dare you look at me.” They also reportedly said, “You’re not a person, you’re property,” and “Don’t look me in the eyes, you’re worthless, keep your head down.”
However, Santos claimed he never received a complaint about the reenactment and that schools volunteer to participate. Still, he said the program would be revised and updated to reflect clearly defined goals.
“These are real feelings that we are eliciting,” he told The Post. “Is it appropriate? That’s up for debate. I wouldn’t deny that. This isn’t pushed on anyone. A person could opt out.” The Baker family has enrolled their daughter, now in eighth grade, in a different school in the Hartford area. Glenn Cassis, the executive director of Connecticut’s African-American Affairs Commission, was skeptical that the program had any educational value.
“It’s abominable,” Cassis said. “No way in this world should this be happening here or anywhere in 2013. Kids at that age being traumatized in a re-enactment makes no sense. Why has this been going on for so many years?”