A middle school in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, has been forced to apologize and suspend an unknown number of teachers after they sent out an assignment asking students to think from the perspective of a person who enslaved people in ancient Mesopotamia, according to NBC5 Chicago.
”A slave stands before you. This slave has disrespected his master by telling him, ‘You are not my master.’ ‘How will you punish this slave?’” the assignment asked the sixth-grade class at Patrick Marsh Middle School, which is about 15 miles away from Madison.
It later said in the assignment that under the codes of a fictional person who enslaved people, the enslaved person would be killed. Parents took to social media to show the assignment.
Parents almost immediately expressed outrage, considering the assignment was sent out on the first day of Black History Month.
Dazarrea Ervins spoke to the local outlet WMTV and said her son came to her confused about the assignment.
“I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I can see how they’re learning about this era, but the wording of the question and the statement — it was just wrong,” Ervins said.
“I showed it to my mom, and I said, ‘I don’t know how to answer this,'” he said. “My mind was blown. I just stared at it for a second,” Ervins’ son, Zayvion later told WKOW.
Principal Rebecca Zahn and Associate Principal Amy Schernecker sent an email to parents apologizing for the “grave error in judgment” and confirmed that some of the teachers involved had been placed on administrative leave.
“We regret that this assignment was not racially conscious and did not align to our district’s mission and vision of equity. We know that it caused harm to our students and their families. Our intent missed the mark, and for that, we are deeply sorry. Going forward we will be sure to think critically about whether our intent matches our impact,” Zahn and Schernecker wrote in an email.
They said the teachers wanted to explain “Hammurabi’s Code,” which was a “set of 282 laws established by King Hammurabi as a way to unify Mesopotamian city-states.”
“The purpose of the activity was to help students understand how order was kept in the early civilization, how the laws that were developed, and how unjust they were. One of the scenarios posed was directly related to the treatment of slaves in Mesopotamia; this was upsetting to students and parents,” the email to parents explained.
“Above all, this assignment hurt our African-American community,” the two added, noting that they would be following up with students and staff to apologize directly.
They also offered additional support to students if they need it.
In a statement from the Sun Prairie Area School District, Superintendent Brad Saron as well as Assistant Superintendents Stephanie Leonard-Witte and Janet Rosseter also apologized.
“This incident is a fracture in our system to support Every Child, Every Day. We deeply regret that this lesson took place, and we also recognize that this was a breakdown in our curricular processes and our district-wide focus on equity,” the statement said, according to WMTV.
Despite the apologies, many of the Black parents who saw the assignment were still incensed that teachers would assign it.
“Explain to me, why did you put that lesson out there? And did you ever read that sentence? Did you think that would bother anybody?” Priscilla Jones told WKOW.
Boys and Girls Club CEO Michael Johnson said that he was asked by parents to call members of the Sun Prairie Area School District board and when he did, the superintendents hadn’t even heard about the incident.
“A lot of times, these incidents happen, there’s a statement that’s put out, and nothing ever happens. This needs to stop right here today. We talk way too much in Madison about these kinds of issues, and we can’t have another generation of young people having these kinds of experiences,” Johnson said in an interview with WKOW.
The Wisconsin State Journal did more digging and found that the assignment came from a website called Teachers Pay Teachers, where the assignment with the exact same phrasing was available for just $4. The site removed the lesson on Monday.
Surprisingly, this is not the first time the assignment has been used and caused outrage. It was used in Michigan in January and was met with a similar reaction.
The only Black member of the Sun Prairie Area School District board, Marilyn Ruffin, criticized the group of teachers for using material from an unapproved site.
“This was not a district-approved website to even go to to even get lesson plans from there. (The teachers) never got approval to do that,” Ruffin told The Wisconsin State Journal. Experts who spoke to the newspaper questioned the core purpose of the assignment and asked what could possibly be gained from trying to get young children to see the perspective of an enslaver.
“I would never put students in a role where they would be in a position of — even in an imaginary way — sort of inflicting violence or harm. That’s sort of rule number one,” University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Jeremy Stoddard said.
NBC News noted that other schools across the country have previously faced backlash for similar assignments that sought to put students in the position of people who enslaved Black people. One assignment from Missouri asked kids to set prices for Black enslaved people and another in Tennessee had students reciting the violent ways Black enslaved persons were controlled.
“I’d like to know that myself too. How can this happen? It’s 2021… How can someone think that this was OK?” Ruffin added.
Alwyn Foster, a parent in the district running for a seat on the Sun Prairie Area School District board, slammed the school’s teachers for not being more sensitive.
In an interview with News 3 Now, Foster questioned how anyone could look at the assignment and think it was appropriate.
“You had at least three educated individuals who looked at this. Maybe all three of them were master’s level, at the very least, all three of them were bachelor’s level and all three of them gave this a thumbs up. It took someone with a sixth-grade education to bring this to his mother and say, ‘Mom, something has to be wrong with this,’” he said.
“A person of color shares with you this is inappropriate. And you basically stiff arm it? Part of the solution is bringing the community in, building that trust. Situations like this eat away at the enamel of trust. Maybe you have something like an anti-racist curriculum task force that approves ideas…not only to make sure that it’s not racist but that it’s anti-racist,” Foster added.
Sun Prairie Police Department Lt. Ryan Cox told WMTV a protest was held related to the incident and Ervins has hired a lawyer.