Father Sues District Over Slavery Lesson
"From Slave Ship to Freedom Road" insists that students think about history, rather than simply learn the facts.
This is an excerpt from a Scholastic.com review of the book "From Slave Ship to Freedom Road," which was used to teach 5th graders during a slavery lesson for Black History Month in a Detroit-area school. But one parent found the book to be a form of discrimination. Jamey Petree, father of Jala Petree, is suing the Michigan school for racial discrimination, racial harassment, emotional distress and creating a hostile environment (among other claims) for the teacher's use of the book in class.
Much like arguments against Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," the book in question presents at least some of the dark side of slavery in American History. According to the Macomb Daily, the book includes "N-word" references and compares African-Americans' skin color to "Satan's thoughts" and "night darkness." The excerpts talk about the buying and selling of slaves. Horrible subjects to be sure, and according to the suit, harmful to the plaintiff's child.
Specifically, the suit alleges the book, "affected the conditions of learning duties and the advantages of her further education, and seriously affected her mental and emotional well-being, past, present and future," reports The Washington Post. The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Scott E. Combs, told The Detroit News that letters and calls to the district failed to satisfy the family's concerns and Jala was pulled from the school district.
The allegations in the suit are serious and varied. One is that the slavery lesson based on this book created a hostile environment for the student. This may not be a successful claim in this situation. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights says a hostile environment may be created by oral, written, graphic or physical conduct that relates to the race, color or national origin of a student. In addition, the Department defines the actions as "sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive so as to interfere with or limit the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from the educational programs or activities." Since the incident the suit was based on concerned one slavery lesson around one book, proving an environment that was continually or substantially "severe" enough to be termed hostile, may be difficult.
The school says it will vigorously defend the suit. According to the Macomb Daily, Jala is now a sixth grader at an Oakland County school.
- Family sues Warren Consolidated Schools over slavery lesson (ABC Action News, wxyz.com)
- U.S. Department of Education, Office For Civil Rights (U.S. Dept. of Ed.)
- Understanding Education Discrimination (FindLaw)
- Arne Duncan Announces Civil Rights Push in Education (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life)