Black History Month Lessons Banned at NYC School Sparks Push for Mandatory Education

Principal Patricia Catania denied lessons on the Harlem Renaissance and confiscated a student-made poster celebrating Lena Horne.

A rally outside of outside Dr. Betty Shabazz School in Brownsville, N.Y. on Feb. 14, 2018. / Photo Courtesy of Male Development & Empowerment Center (MDEC) at CUNY Medgar Evers College.

Patricia Catania, principal of Intermediate School 224 in Bronx, N.Y., told teacher Mercedes Liriano-Clark on Feb. 7 not to give lessons about the Harlem Renaissance and abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass.

Catania, who is white, also incited outrage on Tuesday after confiscating a poster of iconic singer Lena Horne made by two students for a class presentation, according to the New York Daily News.

Liriano-Clark, 45, has taught at the school, which is 95 percent Black and Latino, for more than a decade.

"[Bronx superintendent Richard Cintron] and his team are [investigating] these concerning allegations and will ensure any necessary follow-up action is swiftly taken," The Department of Education told WPIX 11 New York on Tuesday.

"The principal confirmed that she returned the projects and we're providing the school community with ongoing support."

Catania, 48, has been principal of the school since December 2016. Former staffers from her previous school said she targeted Black teachers there, according to the Daily News.

Catania's alleged history of racism along with other recent incidents at New York City public schools has sparked outrage. State Sen. Jesse Hamilton (D-Brooklyn) said at rally on Wednesday in Brooklyn he is sponsoring a bill to create a mandatory year-round Black history curriculum to prevent "cultural insensitivity, and I also call it racism," he said.

During a history lesson at Middle School 118 in the Bronx, students said teacher Patricia Cummings, who is white, selected Black students and told them to lie on the floor, then stepped on their backs to show them what slavery felt like.

Cummings conducted the lesson in multiple seventh-grade classes in late January as part of a unit on the Middle Passage.

"It was a lesson about slavery and the Triangle Trade," one of Cummings' students, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Daily News.

"She picked three of the Black kids," the student said, and instructed them to get on the floor in front of the class. "She said, 'You see how it was to be a slave?' She said, 'How does it feel?'"

The teacher was reassigned away from children on Feb. 1.

"While the investigation has not been completed, these are deeply disturbing allegations, and the alleged behavior has no place in our schools or in society," Department of Education spokeswoman Toya Holness said in a statement to NBC New York.

Last week at Christ the King High School in Queens, honors student Malcolm Xavier Combs, 17, requested to shorten his name to "Malcolm X" to place on his senior sweater. But the school's assistant principal Veronica Arbitello denied his request.

"I was called down to the office," Combs said on Saturday, according to the New York Amsterdam News. "She told me that I couldn't put my name on the sweater. She told me that I didn't want to be associated with that name."

Combs said the assistant principal then asked if that was his real name.

"When her husband, Joseph Arbitello, the school's basketball coach, entered the office, she told him, 'This is the new Malcolm X.' Both laughed," the Amsterdam News said Combs recalled.

Ilyasah Shabazz, one of Malcolm X's daughters, has come out in support of Combs.

"They named their son after Malcolm, so their son would have a life of promise," Shabazz said. "Isn't that what we all want for our children?"

At Wednesday's rally, activists and elected officials expressed the need for the year-round curriculum for students from kindergarten through high school to incorporate Black history, as it is American history. The bill is currently being reviewed by the Senate's Education Committee.

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