Hartford Schools Stage Field Trip Slavery Reenactment, Parent Files Complaint

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Today in truly deplorable news: A Connecticut parent has filed a human rights complaint against the Hartford school system following a magnet school field trip last fall in which students participated in a slavery reenactment that included the use of racial slurs and other derogatory treatment.  

Sandra Baker told the Hartford Courant Thursday that her daughter, who is African American, and her fellow seventh grade classmates at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy were basically "terrorized" during the part of their field trip to Nature's Classroom in Charlton, Mass. that involved a nighttime Underground Railroad exercise.

"I said, 'How was your trip?'" Baker, who said parents were not informed students would be part of a slavery reenactment, recalled. "She started telling me what happened. I was like, 'What?' I was stunned ... This, I didn't see coming."

According to the Bakers, the reenactment exercise happened on the third night of the academy's four night field trip to Nature's Classroom. It involved threatening language, the use of a racial epithet (reportedly the n-word), packing students together in a dark room to simulate a slave ship, and hiding in the woods from "white masters," or, you know, instructors at Nature's classroom who were white. The white instructors also told the students during the slave ship part of the exercise that they would go to the bathroom on each other.

A spokesman for the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, where Baker filed the complain on behalf of her daughter in March, told the Courant it was "an active case" and had no further information. But Baker and her husband, James Baker, brought their case directly to the Hartford school board Tuesday night.

Glenn Cassis, executive director of the state's African-American Affairs Commission, said the exercise, which he learned schools in several other Connecticut school systems had participated in, is "outrageous."

"It's abominable," Cassis said. "No way in the world should this be happening here or anywhere in 2013 ... 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?"

Nature's Classroom is a residential environment education program with about a dozen sites in New England and New York. Thousands of students have attended the program in recent decades. According to Director John G. Santos, the Underground Railroad reenactment exercise is one of 500 different activities the program does, and is only offered to groups of students staying for a few days.

According to Santos, the slavery re-enactment is an "activity that has validity, it's an historical event, it's a simulation." Although Nature's Classroom is focused on ecology, "ecology includes humankind and we're working on behalf, and with the schools, that have four major subjects, history being one of them, the social sciences another."

Right, okay. But when feedback reads more like it came from the Stanford Prison Experiment than from a middle school field trip, there's a clear problem. A report dated April 19, 2013 stated that negative feedback about the exercise included: "Felt like it was real, felt like a real slave," and "Started to believe some of the things the group leaders were saying" and "Did not feel like it was a joke, did not know if the leaders were joking."

(Among the positive feedback was an "appreciation for what we have today" and a student who said the activity was an "exciting learning experience to see what slaves actually went through.")

"Was it scary? Yes," Santos said.

"No one at Nature's Classroom would ever endorse the use of the N-word ... Come on," Santos also stated. "Can it happen? Of course it can happen. Stupid things happen." When asked whether the exercise could possibly be traumatic to students, Santos said, "I would not deny that it could be."

You don't say.

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