hen it comes time for fifth graders to learn about the history of slavery, it’s always a sensitive subject. But it's usually approached with a rational and respectful series of assignments that educate without humiliating any of the students involved.
That wasn't the case at Jefferson School in Maplewood, New Jersey, and parents are looking for answers from officials.
While under the supervision of a substitute teacher, the students orchestrated a “mock slave auction” that was not part of the curriculum in the South Orange-Maplewood School District.
"There was a sale of a black child by white children in the classroom," one parent said. "If you're demoralized — sold on a block in 2017 — it may affect you the rest of your life."
“I’m disgusted, really disgusted a child was bought,” another parent said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
The classroom’s regular teacher found out about the mock auction after returning and sent a letter home to parents.
“I was concerned about the students who viewed and participated in this re-enactment and would like to convey this event to you so we can address the students’ perceptions as a whole,” she wrote.
The school district sent a statement saying it did not condone the activity.
It also said the video shows the students treating the auction “lightly.”
“The jovial nature of the video suggests that either there is a lack of understanding about the true barbarity of a slave auction, or a lack of awareness of how treating this topic comically is offensive,” the letter said.
“We believe that additional work remains to help our students consider how their actions can have a negative impact on others, even if unintended, how joking about slavery is disrespectful to all Americans, especially to the African American community, and that certain matters should be treated with a degree of heightened sensitivity,” it continued.
The incident comes on the heels of an assignment at another school in the same district in which students made posters for slave auctions.
Superintendent Dr. John Ramos addressed the incidents.
“There was no intent to be provocative or demeaning,” he said, “The context is important to know.”
The district said it is planning a town hall event with parents and their kids on the topic as well. It’s important that students understand the brutal nature of slavery, but come on people, use a little bit better judgment.