Fake slave auction, racist comments by Massachusetts teacher spark outrage

A teacher in Massachusetts has been put on leave for holding a mock slave auction during a history lesson and making racist comments in a fifth-grade classroom, drawing new attention to the way slavery is taught in American schools.

The incidents occurred this year at Margaret A. Neary Elementary School in Southborough, Superintendent Gregory L. Martineau said in a letter to parents.

The teacher, who is not named in the letter, held “an impromptu slave auction” in January that required two children of color to stand while the class discussed their physical attributes, the letter said. The incident happened during a history lesson on the economy of the southern colonies.

“Simulations or role-playing when teaching about historical atrocities or trauma are not appropriate, and these teaching methods should not be used,” Martineau wrote, adding that students of color are disproportionately affected by such “flawed” teaching methods.

A Southern Poverty Law Center report published in 2018 on the challenges of teaching the history of slavery in the United States identified simulations as part of the problem.

Such techniques, the report said, “fail to convey the horror of slavery and risk trivializing the subject in the minds of students.”

But similar incidents have been reported from several states in recent years. In North Carolina, a black student was “sold” for $350 in a mock slave auction at a predominantly white-majority school in 2022. A fifth-grade teacher in upstate New York instructed black students in 2019 to raise their hands and placed the students in imaginary chains before proceeding to hold a mock auction in the classroom.

The Massachusetts teacher also used the n-word in a fifth-grade classroom during reading and discussion in April a book that was not in the school’s curriculum, Superintendent Martineau said in the letter. According to Martineau’s letter, the book also did not contain the n-word. After the matter was brought to the school’s attention, the teacher called the student who reported the incident in class, which Martineau said was “not acceptable.”

Shortly afterwards, Northborough and Southborough Public Schools launched an investigation and placed the teacher on paid leave, the letter said, adding that human resources matters will remain confidential. The school’s principal was also placed on administrative leave for ten days in May.

Martineau apologized to the parents and acknowledged ‘missteps’. The school will implement a series of reforms, he said, including a professional development plan that focuses on culturally competent teaching methods.

“Many American schools and educators still struggle to teach the history of American slavery in an empathetic and sensitive way because our nation has not addressed this history in any meaningful way,” said Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, professor of history at the University of California. University of California at Berkeley.

The teaching of the history of slavery, she added, has come under attack by some politicians who have tried to limit the content or legislate the ways in which it can be taught.

It is not surprising, she said, that “some educators follow the example of these individuals, or choose to teach the history of slavery in a way that neglects its traumatic impact on African Americans, especially children.”

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