Teacher Fired for Controversial Racial Assignment

Questions asking how comfortable students are around Blacks, Muslims, gays and other groups sparked a debate on how to teach about racism in schools — if at all.


A Florida middle school teacher has been fired after giving her middle school students an assignment asking how they would feel around certain racial, religious and other groups of people.

The assignment titled "How Comfortable Am I?" was part of a Leader in Me class at Fox Chapel Middle School. WTSP identified the assigning teacher as Daryl Cox.

Questions ask students to rate 1 to 4 how comfortable they are in certain situations, with 1 being "Not Comfortable at All" and 4 being "Completely Comfortable."

Scenarios listed include:

A group of young Black men are walking toward you on the street.

A fellow RA is paraplegic.

Your new suitemates are Mexican.

Your women studies instructor is a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf and full length robe.

The young man sitting next to you on the airplane is Arab.

A friend invites you to go to a gay bar.

A homeless man approaches you and asks for change.

Your family buys a home in a predominantly Black neighborhood.

The Hernando County School District in a statement said, in part, "In no way, did this assignment meet the standards of appropriate instructional material."

One student, Tori Drews, said she found the whole assignment inappropriate.

"I thought some of them were racist. I thought some of them were sexist. I thought it was completely intolerable," she told ABC News affiliate WFTS.

"There were children that were saying, 'This is wrong. Why are we doing this? Does this have a reason?' And she was going, 'Yeah, this is kind of wrong. Maybe I should take it back,'" Drews recalled.

The teacher was reportedly just hired in January and still on a probation period.

"I believe that it was very wrong what she did," Drews said. "That she didn't ask anybody before she gave it out, but I think that maybe she should have been put on a break and had like another training on something like that."

Drews' mom, Jennifer Block, said the firing "was probably best."

"How comfortable are you if you see a group of Black men walking to you on the street? That's completely inappropriate," she said. "In no world, whatsoever, is that okay to question a child on."

One parent of a seventh grader said that kids should not be thinking about these kinds of issues.

"They're kids. Let kids be kids. Why are they asking kids these questions?" she questioned.

"They have social media. You figure they learn everything nowadays anyways. I just don't think it's something that needs to be brought in school."

"Specifically the question that was on the post about the gays in the bar, I think that you're asking kids to try to understand a situation that they may not be fully understanding of," another parent said.

"I just think that sometimes kids are just too young to start that at this age, and in school," the same parent added. "It should be something that should be at home."

But not every parent thought the assignment was such a bad thing.

"It'd be weird talking about something like that with your kid," said Rick Hunter, whose daughter saw the assignment from a friend.

"I think the school could do it a lot better than we could, be a lot more comfortable than we could," Hunter said.

How, If At All, Do Parents Discuss Race With Their Children?

While some Hernando County parents said they would rather be the ones to discuss racial issues with their children, research suggests that many parents are not willing or comfortable enough to have this conversation.

A 2007 study by Birgitte Vittrup Simpson, Ph.D., called "Exploring the Influences of Educational Television and Parent-Child Discussions On Improving Children's Racial Attitudes," analyzed the impacts of parents discussing race with their children, as well as observed parents' willingness to do so in the first place.

According to Simpson's findings, "It appeared that parents were equally reluctant to talk about race even when specifically instructed to do so. Close to half of parents in the two discussion groups admitted that they only briefly mentioned some of the topics. Only 10% of the parents reported having more in-depth discussions with their children."

The study began with 99 white families with children aged between five and seven. Incidentally, some families withdrew before the study began. Two of these families said they did not want to have the required conversations with their children.

Parents were asked if they ever discussed race with their children before. Sixty-five percent of mothers and 42 percent of fathers reported that they did. But further questioning suggested otherwise:

"The follow-up question, asking them to specify what they discussed, was coded based on whether they made explicit references to the topic of race, such as using racial labels to describe people (e.g., Black/African-American; Chinese/Asian; Hispanic/Mexican-American), discussing racial issues such as stereotypes or discrimination, or referring to differences in appearance based on race. Coding revealed that only 33% of mothers and 20% of fathers had explicit discussions about the concept of race. Most commonly these parents mentioned issues such as discrimination, stereotypes, and skin color."

Most of the parents said they give their children generic insight about race, such as simply saying everyone is equal.

The remaining parents in the study, 35 percent of mothers and 58 percent of fathers, admitted they had not had discussions around race with their children. The majority of these parents (49 percent) said the topic "hasn't come up." Nineteen percent said the issue is "not relevant/important," 17 percent do not want their child to start noticing differences if race is brought to their attention, and 9 percent said they simply treat everyone equally and "let [their] child observe." Only 6 percent said they "don't know how to talk about race in a positive way."

In an op-ed for The New York Times, Jennifer Harvey, a professor of religion at Duke University, said that the approach most parents are taking is ineffective, especially in today's charged political and racial climate.

"Meanwhile, studies have long shown that generic messages about equality aren't effective in countering such racial socialization. Right now, then, it's even more urgent that parents who rely on messages like 'we're all equal' or 'we're all the same underneath our skin' in the hope of teaching our children the values of inclusion, equality and difference significantly up our game. And let's be frank, it's parents of white children, like myself, who tend to rely on these sincere, but ineffective, strategies."

"White children are exposed to racism daily," Harvey continues. "If we parents don't point it out, show how it works and teach why it is false, over time our children are more likely to accept racist messages at face value."

For the parents who may not know the best approach, Harvey says that "however we talk about it, we need to talk about racism now more than ever."

Read more news @ DiversityInc.com

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