Va. Principal Mum on What, If Any, Disciplinary Action a Gym Teacher Faces for Underground Railroad Exercise

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The principal of a Virginia elementary school has apologized for a gym class exercise that saw students simulate going through the Underground Railroad during Black History Month.

Third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Madison’s Trust Elementary School in Brambleton, Virginia, were told to make their way through an obstacle course as if they were slaves using the network of trails designed to help them escape from plantations, according to the Loudon Times-Mirror.

Loudoun County Public Schools spokesperson Wayde B. Byard said each student in the six groups had the chance to be the leader, but roles like a sharecropper, a slave or a landowner were not assigned as part of the exercise, WUSA9 reported.

However, Loudoun NAACP Chapter President Michelle Thomas said she received complaints from several parents over the activity, which took place earlier this month in the physical education class with white and black children. In at least one case, she told the newspaper a Black child was assigned to be a slave.

“Obviously, he’s the only one that’s black, he’s the only one that could have ever been related to someone who used to be a slave, and imagine him carrying that stigma all through school,” Thomas said, before clarifying the student may have been one of only a handful of Black children in the class.

When speaking at a meeting with the Loudoun School Board last week, Thomas said “slavery was not a joke. You didn’t get to choose.”

On Feb. 12, Madison’s Trust Principal David Stewart set a letter home to parents apologizing for the exercise, which was not part of the course’s lesson plan.

“The lesson was culturally insensitive to our students and families. I extend my sincerest apology to our students and school community,” he said adding, “this incident has revealed a need for us to further explore how we can ensure this will never happen again.”

Stewart said the information taught during the activity would be re-taught in another way that would “ensure that all the students have a full understanding of the material, within an appropriate and respectful context.”

“A next step for us as a school involves the formation of an equity/culturally responsive team which will be comprised of school personnel and parent representatives,” he noted, saying the group is being created to ensure similar incidents do not occur in the future.

The principal did not, however, note whether or not the instructor responsible faced any disciplinary action on the grounds of privacy laws, according to The Washington Post.

Loudoun County Public Schools officials are working to remedy the issue and told the Times-Mirror they’re pleased with how Stewart is handling things.

Local Black history group The Loudoun Freedom Center has lent knowledge in reviewing the curriculum and engaged in projects at schools. Thomas, who is also involved in the efforts to improve the curriculum, said she has met with Stewart and parents to develop solutions “remedy this racist act.”

“I’m satisfied with the progress that we’re making,” she said.

The incident follows the state’s Gov. Ralph Northam making headlines late last month when an image on his page in a 1984 medical school yearbook photo showed a man in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam, who initially apologized before backtracking and saying he is not in the photo, has refused calls from Democrats and Republicans to resign.

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