Port Huron Schools sent families letter about 'culturally insensitive' MLK Day assignment

·4 min read
A Port Huron Area School District bus sits in the lot outside of Crull Elementary School Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019.
A Port Huron Area School District bus sits in the lot outside of Crull Elementary School Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019.

A letter of apology from Port Huron school administrators went home to parents this week after a Martin Luther King Jr. Day assignment instructed some Crull Elementary students to color over the celebrated civil rights figure’s face completely black.

Ashley Robertson said her 8-year-old son Nolan showed her a worksheet he and his classmates received on Monday to mark the national holiday when he was picked up from school that afternoon.

The worksheet showed an outline of King — his suit marked to be colored in gray with brown hair and a black face on a bright red background.

“He’s in third grade, and he came in the car and handed me the paper and was like, ‘Mom, look!’ And my other son, he has part African American in him, he just looked at it. He’s only 4, and I could just tell he was shocked by it, too,” Robertson said in an interview late Tuesday. “It’s disturbing – just his whole entire face was black.”

For Robertson’s family, it spurred an uneasy conversation about blackface and its racist origins. Her third-grader son is white and has bi-racial siblings, and her fiancé, who was in the car Monday, is Black.

“(Blackface is) what a lot of people have been messaging me about and how they’ve taken a lot of offense to that," she said.

Robertson said she quickly reached out to the school, hearing back early Tuesday, as well as her son’s teacher, fearing the worksheet had been issued in other classrooms. The letter, signed by Superintendent Theo Kerhoulas and Crull Principal Charles Raski, was emailed to parents later Tuesday.

The two administrators wrote the coloring instructions were “culturally insensitive.”

“And we apologize for this,” the letter read. “We want our families to know we can and will do better. As part of our diversity work, this gives our district an opportunity to have discussions about how ‘blackface’ is offensive and hurtful. We intend to use this as a learning opportunity.

“Even though this worksheet is not part of our district-approved curriculum, we are taking the opportunity to raise our concerns with the company that create it, as well. Thank you for your understanding. We will continue to have discussions as a district around diversity and ensuring all students are comfortable at school.”

Requests for comment from the district in follow-up had not been met as of midday Wednesday.

More on the response to MLK Day worksheet: 'The school needs to be held accountable'

In a statement, Kevin Watkins, president of the Port Huron NAACP, said he was still gathering facts on the issue at Crull.

“I have asked all parents and community members to forward their complaints to the school district under (a) standing policy in the student handbook,” he said. “This is within the jurisdiction of the EDI (equality, diversity, and inclusion) officer Mr. Shawn Shackelford to handle if curriculum was not followed. The NAACP will be watching how such (an) incident is handled by the school district. Everything is a process — we follow this process.”

Robertson’s fiancé, Jalen Hayes, who said he’s helped take care of Nolan since he was young, recalled the blackface conversation that emerged Monday afternoon.

It was difficult, he said, to be put in that situation.

“He was confused because he sees me, obviously, and he can’t put two and two together. It made me look stupid that I even had to explain that to him,” Hayes said. “Where’s the protection at for my kids? ... Who was there to stop it and say, ‘That’s wrong'? Basically, it was the case, he went home thinking everything’s OK, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

Robertson said she understood that “people make mistakes,” but that she thought someone should’ve been able to step forward to spot a potential error in coloring instructions.

Hayes said that their kids have now “learned exactly what to do next time” they’re put in a situation such as Nolan was on Monday.

Although the school district also shared the letter to parents on the Crull Elementary Facebook page, he said he thought the district should be more upfront about what happened — or moreover, what’s being done about it.

“I feel like they’re trying to hide everything by, first off, not acknowledging to the whole community about what happened and what they’re going to do about it. Instead, they tell parents, ‘I’m sorry,’” Hayes said. “The school needs to be held accountable for what they did. And I don’t feel like justice has been made. … Because I feel like they’re just throwing it underneath the bridge.”

Contact Jackie Smith at (810) 989-6270 or jssmith@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jackie20Smith.

This article originally appeared on Port Huron Times Herald: Port Huron Schools sent families letter about 'culturally insensitive' MLK Day assignment