Spokane Public Schools is facing allegations of racism after a middle school teacher asked her students to clean cotton in class, an incident that left the only black students in the classroom feeling humiliated, say their representatives.
The Spokane School District has hired an independent investigation to look into allegations from the incident last month, which include both the lesson and Sacajawea Middle School's response.
Kendrick Washington of the ACLU Washington, which is representing the twin 14-year old students and their mother, Brandi Feazell, says the incident started as a lesson on the industrial revolution.
“And then, sort of randomly, they say their teacher put out this box that was full of raw cotton. And she said, we’re going to have a fun exercise today. We’re going to see who can clean this cotton the fastest, then started passing out the cotton balls to the children. The young women were somewhat confused because they haven’t been given a lesson or lecture on slavery, and they didn’t understand why they were being asked to clean cotton," Washington said.
Most of the cotton in the United States was produced by enslaved people and the industry was closely linked to the expansion of the slave trade in America.
Washington said the experience was horrifying for the teenagers and they told their mother, who approached school administration. He said her concerns were at first dismissed, and said later the assistant principal offered to "segregate" the students. Feazell ending up pulling her students out of school after that incident.
In a statement released Wednesday, Feazell said her daughters felt singled out.
"Separating them from the rest of the class would only compound their pain and isolation and do nothing to change the racist culture and policies that led to this inappropriate and harmful lesson in the first place,” she said.
In a statement, her daughters Emzayia and Zyeshauwne said the lesson left them embarrassed and angry.
“We didn’t learn about the slave trade or anything about the history of slavery,” Emzayia said. “The lesson made it seem like enslaved people existed just to pick and clean cotton.”
“The teacher kept saying, ‘We don’t need slaves anymore,’” Zyeshauwne said. “That really hurt because it felt like she was saying there was a time when slavery was okay.”
Spokane Public Schools spokeswoman Sandra Jarrard confirmed that the students had done a lesson on the Industrial Revolution, but said in a statement that reports of the incident are in dispute. She said the district takes the allegations seriously and is investigating, which includes hiring a third party.
Washington said a school district employee did apologize to the family, but says the mother is concerned that experience could happen to other children, and wants measures put in place to prevent future incidents, starting with the district following through on a racial equity resolution the school board passed last year.
“Now seems like a really good time in this moment to say, hey, we really need to prioritize this. It can’t just be words on paper. We have to actually implement the things we promised the community," he said.
The family, which is represented by the ACLU and a Washington state-based advocacy group Team Child, is asking the district to change the curriculum, do anti-racism training, and discipline staff, including the removal of the assistant principal who allegedly made comments about segregation. They are also asking for a formal public apology from the school district.