Spokane school district releases report on cotton-cleaning lesson controversy

The Spokane school district has released the findings of an investigation into an early May incident at a middle school when Black twin sisters were asked to clean cotton along with other students in a social studies class exploring the industrial revolution and the impact of the cotton gin.

The eighth-grade students at Sacajawea Middle School said they were humiliated by the lesson. Their mother, Brandi Feazell, removed the girls from the school and went public with her complaint to Spokane Public Schools officials.

The Spokesman-Review reported the third-party investigator the district hired, Onik’a Gilliam-Cathcart, who specializes in discrimination and retaliation claims, determined that the teacher did not intend to harm the girls with her social studies lesson.

Feazell stated that instead of addressing her concerns of racism in the classroom, a school official offered to remove the girls from the class if they were uncomfortable.

Through interviews conducted with other students in the classroom, the investigation concluded that two students made comments that they would have "hated to be slaves and would have killed themselves" around one of the twins.

"Nevertheless, the reality is that the lesson was extremely hard for these 13-year-old Black students to process without warning and with the added element of insensitive classmates and lack of attunement," the report states.

Gilliam-Cathcart did not provide further comment beyond the investigation.

The school district acknowledged that changes are necessary to avoid similar incidents.

"We will need to be willing to engage in conversations that may be uncomfortable at times, but are necessary to reach our mission of ‘excellence for everyone,’ " the district stated in a letter released with the report. "The United States’ history regarding race is a difficult subjective and a divisive issue in our country."

The school district said it is creating new training that will be embedded in the professional development modules and staff trainings that will "highlight anti-racism and cultural awareness in classrooms."

The ACLU of Washington criticized the school district’s handling of the investigation.

"While we appreciate the Spokane School District’s expressed desire to work with and solicit input from community, it is irresponsible of the district to release the independent investigator’s report without a plan to address the specific harmful experiences the girls endured," said Kendrick Washington II of the ACLU of Washington.

Asking youth, especially Black students, to clean cotton as a way to understand what slavery was like was an unnecessary part of the lesson plan, he said.

"While I understand there’s a desire to put youth in history’s shoes, we don’t give female students nooses to see what it was like right before accused witches were hung in the Salem Witch Trials, nor do we tell kids to get under a guillotine to reenact emotions (from the French Revolution)," Washington said.

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