Hartford, Conn., parents were shocked to discover that their 12-year-old daughter and her classmates were called the N-word, threatened and chased through the woods during a slavery re-enactment exercise, prompting the couple to file a complaint against the school district with the state Human Rights Commission.
The story has spread quickly through social media as it calls into the question the judgment of the directors of Nature’s Classroom in Charlton, Mass., who “terrorized” the kids during their four-day field trip with a nighttime Underground Railroad exercise.
Sandra Baker went before the Hartford School Board to talk about her daughter’s experience and to question the judgment of school administrators.
“I ask that you imagine these phrases being yelled at our 12-year-old child and their friends,” said Baker, a social worker. “‘Bring those (N-word) to the house over there. (N-word) if you can read, there’s a problem. Dumb, dark-skinned (N-word). How dare you look at me?’”
“The fact that they used the ‘N-word,’” Baker later told a reporter from Hartford’s WSFB, “I mean, how dare you say that to my child and call it an educational experience? How dare you say that to any child?”
“It’s a town of people of color,” she said. “Really. I mean, Hartford. You could not see something was wrong with this?”
Baker said parents were not informed that students would participate in a slavery re-enactment.
“I said, ‘How was your trip?'” Baker recalled. “She started telling me what happened. I was like, ‘What?’ I was stunned. … We crossed all our t’s and dotted all our i’s. This, I didn’t see coming.”
The Bakers told the Hartford School Board that their daughter — now an eighth-grader who has left the Hartford school system — and other students were subjected to “social and emotional abuse” during last November’s four-day trip.
The Bakers said the re-enactment occurred on the third night and included threatening language and use of a racial epithet; packing together students in a dark room, as if they were on a slave ship; and hiding in the woods from “white masters” — instructors at Nature’s Classroom who were white— with the students acting as escaped slaves.
Glenn Cassis, executive director of the state’s African-American Affairs Commission, called the case “outrageous.”
While Nature’s Classroom describes itself as a residential environmental education program with about a dozen sites in New England and New York, including four locations in Connecticut, its director John G. Santo said thousands of schoolchildren have attended the program in recent decades and the Underground Railroad exercise—which Santos said is “one of 500 different activities that we do”—is only offered to groups of students who are staying for a few days.
It’s an “activity that has validity, it’s a historical event, it’s a simulation,” Santos told the Hartford Courant.
However, he said, “No one at Nature’s Classroom would ever endorse the use of the N-word. … Come on. Can it happen? Of course it can happen. Stupid things happen.”
Santos said he apologizes for “any impact upon a young person.”
He pointed out that the Bakers’ daughter could have chosen not to participate in the re-enactment, and emphasized that “it’s a complex world and I absolutely believe that at a middle-grade level … the Underground Railroad is only one attempt at making individuals sensitive to an issue.”
In seventh grade, “these are kids, sorry to say, that will be given cars in four more years,” Santos said. During the slavery re-enactment, middle school students had “the ability to play-act. … They pretended to pick cotton, they pretended to be in a slave ship, they pretended to have slave masters …”
“Was it scary? Yes,” Santos said.
The goal for students undergoing the exercise is “awareness of physical and emotional and cultural supremacy over another,” said Santos, who compared the subjugation of slavery to current-day bullying. “It’s a very, very heartfelt understanding of an underclassed group … a personal reaction to the historical event, bringing it to bear on day-to-day living.”
Santos met in August with state education officials to discuss the program.
“It’s abominable. No way in the world should this be happening here or anywhere in 2013,” Cassis said. “Kids at that age being traumatized in a re-enactment … makes no sense. Why has this been going on for so many years?”
“It just doesn’t add up,” Cassis continued. “Someone was asleep at the wheel. … Having students feel like they were slaves, like they were bunched in a slave ship, that their loved ones could be killed, that they could be killed — what’s the educational objective of that? How is that tied into Common Core learning?”
“We’re not trying to scare these kids straight,” Cassis said. “We don’t need this.”