By Chris Hoenig
Close your eyes and imagine in your head: Twelve-year-old Black children, closed into cramped quarters, told that they “will go to the bathroom on each other.” If anyone gets sick, they will be thrown overboard. They’re told that they may have to dance to entertain their masters.
They’re called the N-word multiple times.
Later, they’re brought into a field and told to pick cotton. They’re ordered to “keep their head down and not make contact with the white masters.” If they run, they’re warned that they will be whipped and their Achilles tendons will be cut so they can’t run again.
Now imagine all of this happening in 2012.
These are just some of the accusations brought by parents against a Connecticut magnet school and local educational program. The acts all reportedly happened during a multiday field trip by students from the Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy to the Nature’s Classroom facility last year. There, students participated in a slavery reenactment as part of an educational program about the Underground Railroad.
In the program, teachers, administrators and parents who chaperone the class act as abolitionists, bounty hunters and slave masters, while students take on the role of slaves who eventually look to escape through the Underground Railroad. The students go through the process of crossing the Atlantic on a slave ship, then work to harvest cotton before seeking their way north.
“Although it has been 10 months since my daughter shared what happened on the trip, I still find it outrageous and irresponsible,” James Baker, the father of one of the students, told the Hartford Board of Education at a meeting last week, according to a transcript of his testimony. “We can’t comprehend how year after year, the principal and a group of teachers could allow children to be demeaned, abused and terrorized, and that no one in this school administration was conscious of the potential psychological and physical harm this activity might pose for all students. We trusted the principal and teachers and this administration to protect our daughter.”
Baker and his wife have filed complaints with the Connecticut Department of Education, Human Rights Commission and offices of civil rights against the school board, part of a nearly year-long battle that has led them to pull their daughter out of the school district.
“For nearly a year, I have been actively trying to make my concerns known through the policies and procedures available to me,” Sandra Baker told the board. “I started with a formal letter to the principal, informal direct conversations with those involved with the field trip, and moved on to filing formal complaints and contacting various organizations.”
Nature’s Classroom says the school has participated in the program for more than five years. “The Underground Railroad activity was first offered about 20 years ago. It is one of hundreds of activities that schools can choose to do, or not do, based on their academic goals. Almost 200 schools see it as a valuable extension of their classroom lessons, and request it as one of their many activities. Other schools do not,” the company said in a statement.
“At Nature’s Classroom, we value diversity and inclusiveness and we strive toward a better understanding of each other. Many of our activities encourage teamwork, working together to build bridges both literally and figuratively. The Underground Railroad activity is no exception.”
Officials at Nature’s Playground say they were unaware of the details of the complaint until recently. “We were shocked to hear some of the comments included in the complaint. Nature’s Classroom does not condone the use of the N-word. We would have taken immediate disciplinary action, including dismissal, had we known of this concern. We began an investigation into the specific complaints yesterday. This investigation is ongoing.”
The company says that students have the ability to remove themselves from the program at any time and can opt out of portions of the program, but the Bakers say their daughter was only given that option a half-hour before the program began. “I ask that you imagine these phrases being yelled at our 12-year-old child and their friends,” Sandra Baker said. “‘Bring those [N-word] to the house over there.’ ‘[N-word,] if you can read, there’s a problem.’ ‘Dumb, dark-skinned [N-word]. How dare you look at me’
“The fact that they used the N-word—I mean, how dare you say that to my child and call it an educational experience. How dare you say that to any child. It’s a town of people of color,” she said. “Really. I mean, Hartford. You could not see something was wrong with this”