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Teachers face discipline over homework referencing whipping, killing of slaves

Feb. 22, 2013 at 12:33 PM ET

A pair of elementary school teachers in Manhattan are facing disciplinary action stemming from a homework assignment that involved word problems using examples of slaves being whipped and dying on slave ships.  

A student teacher at P.S. 59 in Manhattan brought the issue to school officials after she was asked to photocopy a worksheet to be given as homework for a fourth-grade class taught by Jacqueline Vitucci. The assignment featured questions such as “One slave got whipped five times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month (31 days)? Another slave got whipped nine times a day. How many times did he get whipped in a month? How many times did the two slaves get whipped together in one month?"

The student teacher, Aziza Harding, refused to photocopy the worksheet and used another one instead while bringing the issue to administrators. The worksheet also included a question about a ship filled with 3,799 slaves, asking "One day, the slaves took over the ship. 1,897 are dead. How many slaves are alive?"

The assignment had been created a month earlier by fourth-grade social studies teacher Jane Youn, who was teaching her students the history of slavery and used the topic during a math lesson, according to the New York City Department of Education. The students were asked to create word problems based on their lesson about slavery, and Vitucci used the same worksheet created by Youn's class.

“This is obviously unacceptable and we will take appropriate disciplinary action against these teachers," the DOE said in a statement issued to TODAY.com. “The Chancellor spoke to the principal, and she has already taken steps to ensure this does not happen again.”

“I am appalled by this and will be meeting with staff as well as families,’’ P.S. 59 principal Adele Schroeter said in a statement. “I have already met with the teacher and have arranged for training around this issue for the entire staff at my school.”

In the midst of Black History Month, the incident in Manhattan comes on the heels of a controversy earlier this month at an Alabama elementary school in which a kindergarten class of predominantly African-American students allegedly held a mock slave auction. Jamelle Young, a mother of a student at Macmillan International Academy in Montgomery, Ala., told NBC affiliate WSFA that the teacher sent home a coloring sheet of a slave transaction, told the children to ask if their parents could be traced back to slaves, and held a mock slave auction in class.

"I find it ironic and hurtful that the two children that she named the masters were the fairer-skinned boy and the fairer-skinned girl," Young told WSFA. "Everybody was black, I guess, that participated, but (my son) said he didn't want to get on the table of the auction block. And how are you supposed to feel when your 5-year-old says he didn't want to go on an auction?"

The school, which is represented by Montgomery Public Schools, has not publicly identified the teacher.

“We are investigating a parent’s concerns about the methods used by a teacher in providing instruction to students about slavery in America,’’ Montgomery Public Schools said in a statement to TODAY.com. “We are working to ensure discussions concerning this period in our history are honest and appropriate both in content and in relation to the age and grade level of students. Montgomery Public Schools take parents’ concerns seriously and will take appropriate action, if warranted, once the investigation has concluded.”

There have been several incidents in past years of controversial lessons while teaching about slavery to young children. During Black History Month in 2011, an African-American student at an Ohio elementary school was assigned to play a slave as part of a social studies lesson. In April 2011, a teacher at an elementary school in Norfolk, Va., had the white students in her fourth-grade class “buy’’ the black and mixed-race students in a mock slave auction after putting them on either side of the classroom.

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