Slavery lesson went too far, mom says

December 5, 2008 3:41:15 PM PST
A white teacher attempted to enliven a seventh grade discussion of slavery by binding the hands and feet of two black girls, prompting a complaint from one girl's mother and the local chapter of the NAACP. After the mother complained to the school, the superintendent said he was having "conversations with our staff on how to deliver effective lessons."

"If a student was upset, then it was a bad idea," said Superintendent Brian Monahan of the North Rockland School District in New York City's northern suburbs.

The teacher apologized to the 13-year-old student and her mother during a meeting Thursday that also included a representative of the local NAACP. But the mother, Christine Shand of Haverstraw, said Friday she thinks the teacher should be removed from the class.

"I think the teacher should have gotten some discipline," said Shand, a single mother who works with the mentally disabled. "I know if that was me, I would be uncomfortable going back to that class. Why should my daughter have to switch?"

Monahan refused to say what, if any, measures were taken against the teacher, but she was still working on Friday.

"We encourage our teachers to deliver the curriculum in a variety of ways, to go beyond just reading the textbook," the superintendent said. "We don't want to discourage creativity. But this obviously went wrong because the student was upset."

The girl, Gabrielle Shand, attends Haverstraw Middle School. On Nov. 18, social studies teacher Eileen Bernstein was discussing the conditions under which African captives were taken to America in slave ships.

She bound the two students' hands and feet with tape and had them crawl under a desk to simulate the experience, Monahan and Shand said. Monahan said the two were not the only blacks in the class.

Gabrielle burst into tears at home, her mother said.

"There are other ways to demonstrate slavery," she said Friday. "It doesn't matter the color of the kids, it's just not right to tie them up. My daughter is till upset, still embarrassed. She didn't go to school today."

Wilbur Aldridge, director of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the history demonstration, first reported in The Journal News, "went wrong when she started to do that binding."

"There's nothing wrong with a lesson on slavery. It was that particular choice of a demonstration that put it into a category of the bizarre," he said. "I don't care what color, no one should be put in the position of having their hands and feet bound."

He said he feared that the teacher still "didn't get it" after their meeting. He said the teacher apologized "because Gabrielle was upset, not because she admitted she did something wrong."

The school district said Bernstein was not available for comment.

Monahan, who did not attend the meeting, said, "The mother felt we should look at policy in the district as a whole so this would not happen again, and it won't. ... My hope is that the mother will continue her conversations with the district."

Shand said she had not decided whether to take any further action, including filing a lawsuit.

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