A controversy erupted at Sacajawea Middle School in Spokane in May when two Washington Black teens said they were asked to clean cotton for social studies lesson. Now, the latest investigation has found that the cotton gin lesson at the school had no intent to harm.
An investigation into a middle school history lesson in Washington state found no racial intent when a teacher asked her students to clean cotton â including a pair of Black twin sisters.
Onik'a Gilliam-Cathcart, a specialist in discrimination and retaliation claims, investigated the incident at Sacajawea Middle School in Spokane. The investigation determined that the teacher did not intend to "harm" the girls with the lesson, The Spokesman-Review reported.
Exactly What had Happened at the Social Studies Class?
Twins Emzayia and Zyeshauwne Feazell said they were in their social studies class on May 3 when they said the teacher pulled out a box of raw cotton and told the class they were going to do a "fun" activity. The girls added the students were subsequently instructed to clean freshly picked cotton as part of a classroom assignment to see who could do so the fastest.
One of twins, Emzaya, told local television station KXLY that she was "shocked that a teacher would bring boxed cotton into a class and tell them to pick it clean so she could teach us how slaves were back then."
The 14-year-olds said they were "hurt" and "shocked" during the lesson and told their mother, Brandi Feazell, about the incident.
Brandi Feazell said she was "floored" when she heard about the lesson being taught in the class.
Feazell decided to speak with the school's principal assistant, Taylor Skidmore. But that only made matters worse.
Skidmore's offer was to "segregate my girls into a room by themselves, away from the white teacher," she said.
Did Skidmore say 'Separate' or 'Segregate' the Students from Their White Teacher?
The investigation did not, though, examine a related incident in which Skidmore offered to instead remove the girls from the class if they were uncomfortable, and may have used the words "separate" or "segregate." Feazell claimed that the offer avoided the issue of addressing concerns of racism in the classroom.
The interview was inconclusive on that matter.
Gilliam-Cathcart did interview several students and found that some of them had been "insensitive" about the lesson, saying around the twins that they would have "hated to be slaves and would have killed themselves."
"Nevertheless, the reality is that the lesson was extremely hard for these 13-year-old Black students to process without warning and with the added element of insensitive classmates and lack of attunement," the report states.
'The United States' History Regarding Race is a Difficult Subjective and a Divisive Issue'
The school district will implement changes to avoid similar incidents, FOX 13 News reported.
"We will need to be willing to engage in conversations that may be uncomfortable at times, but are necessary to reach our mission of 'excellence for everyone,'" the district stated in a letter released with the report. "The United States' history regarding race is a difficult subjective and a divisive issue in our country."
The ACLU of Washington Criticized the District for How It Handled the Investigation
The ACLU of Washington criticized the way the district handled the investigation, saying it was irresponsible to release the report without a plan to address the "specific harmful experiences."
"While I understand there's a desire to put youth in history's shoes, we don't give female students nooses to see what it was like right before accused witches were hung in the Salem Witch Trials, nor do we tell kids to get under a guillotine to reenact emotions (from the French Revolution)," said Kendrick Washington II of the ACLU of Washington.
The Connection of Cotton Gin with Slavery
The cotton gin, patented in the late 18th century by Eli Whitney, was used to separate cotton fiber from the plant's seeds. However, like many inventors, Whitney (who died in 1825) could not have foreseen the ways in which his invention would change society for the worse. The tool greatly increased cotton production but also greatly increased southern plantations' need for slave labor, with tens of thousands uprooted from Africa in the decade following the gin's invention, according to the National Archives.