Rutland Middle School administrators and faculty addressed the Rutland City School Board Tuesday evening to discuss a social studies lesson that has drawn complaints from parents and students.
Last week a section of seventh-grade students participated in a mock simulation about Colonial trading, which included trading slaves. In the simulation, students traded paper cards depicting various Colonial-era “commodities” such as guns, tobacco, cotton and slaves. The slave cards depicted a primary source advertisement of a slave auction containing the word “Negroes.”
During the simulation, students role played as merchants and representatives of the American Colonies, England, the West Indies and West Africa. Merchants would move from one “port” to another buying and selling goods, including slaves. No students role played as slaves.
Several students, including students of color, voiced objections to the lesson because it made them feel uncomfortable.
Interim Superintendent David Wolk addressed the issue Tuesday, stating, “I am very sorry for the discomfort and outright pain that some people have felt.”
He said that while “no one intended harm, I’m very sorry that was the case.”
Wolk explained that in recent weeks, the school board has undergone an effort to learn more about implicit bias through a training led by Vermont Human Rights Commission Executive Director Bor Yang.
He called the training “very effective” and said it is in the process of being extended to the rest of the district.
RMS Principal Patrica Beaumont and Technology Integrationist Jack Adams, one of the teachers who led the unit, then addressed the board to describe the lesson in detail and explain how the school plans to move forward.
Beaumont said she, Assistant Superintendent Rob Bliss and the four teachers involved with the unit met with Rutland NAACP President Tabitha Moore Tuesday. She confirmed that the district has received a formal complaint from the organization. She also said five families have issued complaints with the school.
Adams said the exercise was not focusing on slavery; rather, it was focusing on the Colonial mercantile system leading up to the American Revolution.
He said it was a coincidence that the lesson was taught during Black History Month.
Adams said the meetings with parents and the NAACP “helped us to understand this can trigger negative emotions.”
“We truly apologize to everyone,” he said. “We weren’t as sensitive as we could be.”
Beaumont said Moore has provided several resources to help teachers change their “lenses” on how to teach a sensitive subject like slavery. They also discussed a long-term plan for designing more inclusive curricula.
Board member Alison Notte asked if the unit included any discussion of the dehumanization of slavery.
Adams said teachers discussed the horrors of slavery and the effects on African culture.
Speaking with the Herald Monday, RMS social studies teacher Robert Labate also said a discussion of the human aspect of slavery is part of the unit.
“We start with Jamestown, we talk about first slaves coming in 1619. We talk about the economy in the south being on the backbone of slaves,” he said.
Board member Joanne Pencak suggested that a unit exploring how the slave trade led to American prosperity might be a better lesson to teach.
She thanked Beaumont and Adams for their honesty and transparency in coming before the board.
Notte then made a motion for the board to create a diversity and equity council for the district.
While the motion was met with support, a lengthy discussion followed in which other board members attempted to hash out how such a council would be funded, implemented and run.
At one point, Notte voiced her impatience over letting the matter potentially get lost in committee. She noted how similar efforts to have a conversation about diversity and equity were scuttled last year in the wake of the raising of a Black Lives Matter flag at RHS campus.
Notte eventually amended her motion for the board “to direct the superintendent to propose to the board the formation of a diversity and equity council.”
The motion passed unanimously.
In an interview with the Herald Monday, Beaumont confirmed that two parents spoke with social studies teachers last week about the lesson.
“They expressed their children’s concern about the topic of slavery. Both teachers agreed that the unit could still be taught in a meaningful way by not utilizing those cards ... and being more sensitive to the term of slavery,” she said.
According to Labate, the unit has been taught at the school for at least seven years.
“We live in a fast-changing world right now. It’s our job to respond to that,” Beaumont said. “We appreciate the fact that people bring it to our attention because sometimes they don’t, and we can’t fix it if we don’t know it needs to be fixed.”
Moving forward, Beaumont said she wants to empower students to “take action.” She said the school will be “talking about how we can have kids have voice in these matters and constructing something for them to be able to do it.”
Late last week, Labate said he and another teacher, who is African American, had a dialogue with students regarding the lesson.
“It brought those uneasy feelings to light,” he said. “It allowed more kids a chance to share if they felt uneasy.”
“It was really powerful to see two different adults from two different walks of life with two different points of view but their goal in the end was to make the best experience for the kids,” he said.
Labate added the situation has “opened up a wonderful discussion with parents and teachers and with kids.”