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‘Community Turning on This Child’: Virginia Parents Sues for $10M, Claims Son Has Been Bullied for Exposing School for Forcing Him to Use Vaseline to Pick Cotton Balls

An Arlington, Virginia, family is demanding the school district that governs Gunston Middle School, the campus where their son is enrolled, pay them millions of dollars in damages.

They allege their eighth grader, an African-American boy, was forced against his wishes to play a game involving applying Vaseline to his nose and using it to pick up cotton balls and then he faced backlash after he complained.

cotton ball
Sidney Rousey and his mother Keisha Kirkland outraged teacher orchestrated a racially insensitive game that involves picking cotton balls with your nose. (Photo: Facebook/Christian Flores)

On Wednesday, Feb. 8, Sidney Rousey Jr., the only Black child in the class, was asked to perform this activity by his substitute French teacher.

Related: ‘I Am Going to Make Them Pick F*g Cotton’: University of Wisconsin Students Call for Expulsion of Classmate Who Went on a Racist Rant In Viral Video

Keisha Kirkland, the boy’s mother, told local station WTTG that she was appalled when he told her what happened.

“African-Americans had to pick cotton during slavery. And it is a disgrace to have an African American child put it on his face with Vaseline, to me, it’s disgraceful. It’s a smack in our face, and it says they do not care about our history,” the mom said.

The family has enlisted the support of an attorney as they seek redress from the suburban Washington school district.

Their lawyer, former Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, sent a letter on Tuesday, May 2, to the Arlington Public Schools demanding $10 million in damages. He wanted to send a powerful message to the school, noting that the responsibility for what is taught in the classroom rests squarely on the district’s shoulders.

“He was visibly uncomfortable with the prospect of participating in the exercise,” Fairfax states in the letter reviewed by Atlanta Black Star.

“Sidney was coerced into a situation that was deeply traumatizing,” the letter explains. “He was the first student forced to participate in the activity and only did so because out of fear that noncompliance would result in him getting ‘in trouble.’”

Rousey told reporters in February that at first, he did not attach any particular racial significance to the cotton balls.

“I knew a little bit about the cotton and Black people, and at the time it was like, I knew about it but in the moment I didn’t know. Now that I realize it, it made me feel even worse that I played the game. I know this month is Black History Month, and I felt like people really didn’t care about our history,” Rousey said then.

When he spoke up about how uncomfortable the exercise was for him, officials moved him out of the classroom with his friends and placed him in a virtual class to work independently in the school library. The family says officials then placed him on constructive in-school suspension.

The teen claims he is now being bullied by other kids because of the incident. Some of the students have even wished “death upon him,” according to WUSA 9. 

The lawyer wrote, “GMS’s actions and inactions have served to vilify Sidney resulting in the school community turning on this child.”

“Sydney has been ostracized and isolated; he is the victim of a hostile educational environment,” Fairfax stated in the letter on behalf of the family. “GMS continues to treat Sidney as if he engaged in wrongdoing; the administration laid the foundation, and the school community has followed suit.”

The family and the lawyer assert the school community retaliated against the child for blowing “the whistle on a racist incident at the school.”

According to the correspondence with the district, the teacher originally asked everyone in the class to play, but no one volunteered. When no one stepped up, the attention fell on their son.

The teacher kept pushing him to do it, and he repeatedly said he did not want to. He did not say “no,” for fear he would get into trouble.

“GMS continues to treat Sidney as if he engaged in wrongdoing; the administration laid the foundation, and the school community has followed suit,” explained the settlement letter. “Arlington and APS was not created on a pillar of inclusivity; it, like school districts throughout the Commonwealth, has a history of racial injustice.”

The substitute teacher at Gunston Middle School said the child was just asked to play a harmless game called “nose dive” and did not believe it had racial overtones.

District spokesperson Frank Bellavia explained in February: “Using only their nose, the players were challenged to move the cotton balls one at a time from one end of the table to a bowl at the other end of the table. The object was to see who could move the most cotton balls,” The Vaseline helped cotton balls to stick to a person’s nose during the game.

The family disagreed, saying the game was harmful, racially insensitive and culturally tone-deaf.

“Despite this nation’s history of trafficking in and profiteering from the forced labor of enslaved people first brought to the Commonwealth on the White Lion, APS seemingly fails to recognize the historical trauma triggered by activities that include cotton as a focal point,” the family stated in the letter.

Rousey’s family is not alone in their outrage but has the support of the local branch of the NAACP.

The school district has not responded to the letter.

Previously, the school division said the “nose dive” game was an approved team-building activity for Gunston eighth graders “to foster collaboration,” according to the Washington Post.

Schools Superintendent Francisco Durán further stated at the February school board meeting that school administrators have launched a probe into the incident. He also declared they would remove the game from the approved activity list.

Lastly, Durán said the school division’s diversity office has been instructed to review “any instructional activities that are taking place to make sure they are culturally sensitive.”

“I, as superintendent, and all of us on this dais have an expectation that instruction in APS is inclusive and culturally sensitive to the diversity of all of our students,” Durán said at the meeting.

“We have made some steps to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion, but clearly there is much more work to do,” he continued. “I’m very disappointed that this has happened and that we continue to see these types of things in our schools. When we see this, we need to listen more to our students and our families.”

Fairfax said the district has until Friday, June 2, to respond. Should the district not respond, the family plans to take the matter to the courts.

What people are saying

5 thoughts on “‘Community Turning on This Child’: Virginia Parents Sues for $10M, Claims Son Has Been Bullied for Exposing School for Forcing Him to Use Vaseline to Pick Cotton Balls

  1. Leslie Fulton says:

    Anyways to be shamed or systematically put through modern day slavery there doing it, it don’t matter how hard working we are or how law bideding we are or even forgiven they always find a way to put us in our place as they say I live in Lubbock Texas and prejudice is alive and well to the point they have convinced the Spanish population they are better but that’s just a for now tactic if they hate us with them it better there chances at putting physical chains back on us but when or if they succeed they would be next because it’s the best mind game ever to be played with and on people desperate for a place. Even when playing by the rules theres no way to win I say this because I’ve played by all the rules and followed all the laws and still I’m not whom I’m truly am I am who they’ve made me.

  2. Mary says:

    This sounds like a harmless game that a racist mother Made into a racist incident. The child even said he became uncomfortable after the mother said something. The trauma came from his Mama, not the school or the game. The “bullying” is because Mama added intentions that were never intended. Why if every other child was allowed to say no, then couldn’t this child? The “story” makes no sense.

  3. Carl Woodard says:

    That WASN’T a harmless game and it’s disgusting how anyone would even defend it

  4. If all the kids said No and this child did not want to do it then WHY push it ?? This teacher knew what she was doing she’s too old not to know. No one knows how it is to be black unless you are black . The mother felt that her child was being made a fool of and because she stepped up and said something about it then she’s the one that started it I think not. She did not do anything that any other parent would not have done I would have stepped up and said something as well we have to teach our children our culture and how people see us not all people but some people see us we’re all human beings we all believe bleed red and for you to sit up here and try to go back in history and do stuff to black children is ridiculous

  5. Fred R. Moore says:

    This is some of that brainwashing that s been used on our people since slavery. If it wasnt a bad thing to do to a black child why would this lawyer of all people take on this case? Wow an good choice.

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