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Sun Prairie school calls slavery question a “grave error in judgement”

Sun Prairie Area School District has placed the teachers involved on administrative leave, which is consistent with their procedures.
Published: Feb. 1, 2021 at 3:34 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 1, 2021 at 10:41 PM CST
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SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. (WMTV) - Patrick Marsh Middle School is facing backlash from parents and community members Monday following a history lesson that the district called a “grave error in judgment.”

The assignment was given out to some sixth grade social studies classes, according to an email from principal Rebecca Zahn. The activity was designed to cover the politics of ancient Mesopotamia and asked students to apply an ancient law called Hammurabi’s Code to different scenarios. One scenario asked,”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?”

First day of Black History Month and this was issued to my 6th grader at Patrick Marsh Middle School!!! 🤬😡 Patrick Marsh Middle School: 608-834-7601

Posted by Dazarrea Jessica Lee Ervins on Monday, February 1, 2021

Dazarrea Ervins said her sixth grade son Zayvion brought her the assignment with a ‘weird look on his face that I’ve never seen before.” She said she was “just shocked. 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,” she continued, noting it was the first day of Black History Month.

Zayvion added, “It made me think of how they would treat me if I was in-person, in class. What would they think of me, and would they treat me like I was an outsider and make me feel scared and unsafe?”

Ervins took her frustration to the teacher and the principal. Later that day, Principal Rebecca Zahn and Associate Principal Amy Schernecker wrote to families, that this assignment ultimately hurt the African American community of the school and was upsetting to parents and students.

“We regret that this assignment was not racially conscious and did not align to our district’s mission and vision of equity,” said the two officials. “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.”

Ervins also connected with Michael Johnson, the CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. He called this example “a lack of cultural competency,” adding, “It’s a lack of training. There might be underlying issues that we don’t know about.”

Sun Prairie Area School District said that they will continue to investigate this incident and have placed the teachers involved on administrative leave, which is consistent with district procedures.

Principal Zahn and Assistant Principal Schernecker both said that they will be following up with students on processing this event, as well as offering services to those who need additional support.

SPASD noted that this lesson was not part of their district curriculum, meaning no student should participate in or complete the assignment.

“This incident is a fracture in our system to support Every Child, Every Day,” said district officials. “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 teachers who were involved in this lesson apologized to the students and families, SPASD said.

The district added that their social studies curriculum review committee will meet for an “intensive review” of their teaching practices in social studies around “the lens of racial trauma and curriculum violence.”

Here is the full statement from Patrick Marsh Middle School that was sent out to parents:

Today an assignment was given in some of our 6th grade Social Studies classes that was exploring the politics of ancient Mesopotamia. A portion of the assignment asked students to answer scenarios around Hammurabi’s Code. Hammurabi’s Code 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. Above all, this assignment hurt our African American community.

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.

Please know that we will be following up with our students to process this event and the staff involved will apologize directly to them. We will also have student services personnel available to any of our students who need additional support.

Principal Rebecca Zahn and Associate Principal Amy Schernecker

Here is the full statement from Sun Prairie Area School District that was sent out to parents:

Sun Prairie Area School District Families:

We are writing today to apologize for a grave error in judgment that occurred during sixth-grade social studies instruction at Patrick Marsh Middle School. A small group of our teachers developed and used an activity that was neither racially conscious nor aligned to our district mission, vision, values, curriculum, or district equity statement.

Once we learned of this activity, we immediately stopped any further teaching of the lesson and promptly began an investigation. In our preliminary findings, we have determined the lesson was not a part of our district curriculum and therefore, no student should participate in or complete the assignment. To be clear, this lesson is not consistent with the School Board’s vision for this school district, our commitment to equity and cultural responsiveness, or the development opportunities we have invested in our staff.

The staff issued a direct apology to the students in the class and their families. While our administrative staff continues to investigate the situation, the teachers involved have been placed on administrative leave, consistent with our district’s procedures.

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. In addition to immediately addressing this situation, it is important that we commit to changing our curriculum and professional development for all staff. To that end, we will work to immediately reconvene our social studies curriculum review committee for an intensive review of our social studies teaching practices with the lens of racial trauma and curriculum violence.

Our Student Services team will be following up with the students from these classrooms and will be available to support other students in processing their feelings about this incident. Further information will come from Patrick Marsh’s leadership, including opportunities for listening sessions. Additionally, our Patrick Marsh leadership team will be working with Black community leaders to work toward community healing. All of our schools are prepared to support students' processing.

Sincerely,

Brad Saron, Superintendent

Stephanie Leonard-Witte, Assistant Superintendent for Teaching, Learning & Equity

Janet Rosseter, Assistant Superintendent for Operations

Superintendent Brad Saron, Assistant Superintendent for Teaching, Learning & Equity Stephanie Leonard-Witte, Assistant Superintendent for Operations Janet Rosseter

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