Mom claims son was shamed during school lesson on segregation

A reporter from the Tri-State Defender, Alex Wilson, is shoved by an angry mob of white people near Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., Sept. 23, 1957.  The fight started when nine black students gained entrance to the school as the Army enforced integration.  (AP Photo)
Reporter Alex Wilson was shoved by an angry mob while covering the Little Rock Nine at Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. in 1957. A Phoenix teacher used the turmoil over the school's desegregation as inspiration for a controversial lesson. (Photo: AP Photo)

A Phoenix mom is speaking out after another parent alerted her about a lesson on civil rights and school desegregation which took place in their children’s humanities class last Friday.

Claudia Rodriguez went on Facebook to post a note sent by the fellow mom, who was “upset” and “disgusted” over a “re-enactment of school segregation” for the third-graders.

Phil Handler, a spokesman for the boys’ school — BASIS Phoenix Central — told the Arizona Republic that the class was learning about the Little Rock Nine. In 1957 the black students were taunted by angry white mobs when they started attending a newly desegregated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.

Handler told the newspaper that Rodriguez’s 9-year-old son volunteered to take part in the exercise, which, according to the other mom, had the boy walking “through while other students yelled and screamed at him that he was not wanted.”

"The characterization that I’ve heard is that the boy was fine, he was not upset and the whole class thought it was a pretty good lesson," Handler said of the exercise.

But both moms suspect that Rodriguez’s son was singled out because he is black.

“His humanities teacher found it wise that in order for the kids to understand what black kids during those times experienced that she would have my child, who is black, walk through the classroom as she, another teacher, and the remaining 27 classmates yell, humiliate and berate him,” Rodriguez posted on Facebook.

“The head of school had the nerve to tell me that there was some educational value in this incident because it started conversations in the homes of the other kids, AT THE EXPENSE OF MY CHILD'S EMOTIONAL WELLBEING. I felt the need to speak up so that no other child ever has to feel what my son felt. This woman should not be teaching kids, she has no business in a classroom if she thinks it's OK to do this to a child.”

The other mom, meanwhile, speculated that the boy was chosen for “realistic sake.” The mom also objected to her own son being forced to “play racist or hate-monger.”

School officials dispute any discriminatory motivations, noting that children of other races participated in the same exercise during other periods. Handler told the Republic that the teacher forbade racist or derogatory terms during the lesson, while another mother said her daughter, who is Indian, found nothing wrong with the exercise.

“She came home and told me how important it is to treat other people with kindness and not to discriminate," Vinita Bhatnagar told the paper. "She had absolutely nothing negative to say about it. I do not believe that it was out of line in any way."

Rodriguez has threatened to file a complaint with the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, though it is unclear if she has already done so.

Rosalind Thompson, the head of BASIS Phoenix Central, issued a statement to parents about the incident, and reportedly plans to meet with Rodriguez and NAACP representatives on Tuesday.

"I am sorry that ... (the) lesson was offensive to some of you — we won't repeat it," Thompson, who is black, said in a letter to parents. "But in today's environment, I think it helped the children to 'live' that history for a brief moment and hopefully assure that they never have to live it in real life as I did."

The school also posted a statement on Facebook addressing the matter.

“The exercise in our humanities class was to have students volunteer to play the roles of several different people present on the day the Little Rock Nine walked into school,” Thompson wrote in the Facebook statement. “While those volunteers playing the roles of the Little Rock Nine and their military escorts walked from the classroom door to the front of the classroom, other students yelled loudly to recreate the chaotic scene the Little Rock Nine faced. The students tasked with ‘yelling’ were specifically instructed not to use words, but only to make noise. After the brief exercise, the class came together as a group and discussed what that felt like, how it likely made those heroic students in Little Rock feel, and how it compares to the loving and nurturing experience our students feel each day.

“While the teacher communicated to parents prior to beginning the civil rights movement lessons that sensitive topics were going to be covered, this particular exercise was not discussed with parents in advance. The teacher also asked parents in her initial communication to have discussions with their students at home given the sensitivity of the information that would be presented in class. BASIS Phoenix Central students are a diverse group of children coming from all walks of life, and the children who participated in this exercise are similarly diverse. The stark differences in how certain families feel about this exercise has only further underscored the importance of teaching children about the civil rights movement, and of having discussions with our children and in our school community as a whole on issues such as racial discrimination that continue to plague our society.”

Rodriguez’s post has elicited some strong reactions. Many commenters called the incident “unacceptable” and “cruel.” But one parent, who has a child in the same class, defended it, commenting that “children were not picked by the color of their skin and they were not berating one another. I understand this is a sensitive situation, but with all the outrage I feel the need to share a little more insight.”

Yahoo has contacted Rodriguez for comment.

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