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Calls for teacher's firing over slavery assignment in Freeport school

About 25 people protested Tuesday outside J.W. Dodd Middle School in Freeport to call for the firing of a teacher who told students to write funny captions for pictures of African American slaves. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Community activists, residents and students rallied Tuesday in Freeport to call for the firing of a middle school social studies teacher who told her classes to “make it funny and don’t bore me” in assigning them to write captions for pictures of African American slaves.

The crowd of 25 people outside the J.W. Dodd Middle School chanted slogans and carried signs saying “I just want an education, not a racist history lesson,” and wore T-shirts saying “No racist teachers.”

Shanequa Levin, one of the organizers of the rally, said she applauded the Freeport public school district for quickly removing the teacher from the classroom, launching an investigation and eliciting an apology from the teacher.

But she said that was not sufficient.

“An apology from her is not enough. She should not be allowed to teach in any classroom in America,” said Levin, a leader of the Women’s Diversity Network advocacy group.

In a statement Tuesday, district Superintendent Kishore Kuncham said, "I want our community to know that we continue to stand by our finding that the Dodd teacher provided insensitive, unacceptable direction to her students in regard to a poorly-conceived classroom lesson. This behavior is unacceptable and as a community, we will rise above it."

He added, "As the investigation continues, it should be understood by our community that the teacher has been removed from the classroom and administratively reassigned. As this is a matter of personnel, the district has no further comments at this time."

Last week Kuncham said that besides being a “poor lesson, it is an insensitive trivialization of the deeply painful era for African Americans in this country and it is unacceptable."

Kuncham said the district was working with the teacher and her union representative to "finalize an agreement.” He did not provide details about the agreement or whether the teacher, who was not publicly named, would return to the classroom.

She gave the assignment to three separate classes, Kuncham said.

Levin and others said if the teacher was not permanently removed, they would step up their actions.

“As a father I am disappointed. As an educator, I am disgusted,” said William K. Moss III, a leader of the advocacy group Black Long Island. “To me there is no apology great enough for violating human dignity and teaching students to violate human dignity as well.”

“Those pictures represent a dark history for African Americans, a painful history for African Americans and for all Americans,” he said.

Dewey Smalls, vice president of the Long Island chapter of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, said, “How could you find anything funny about slavery? This is not a comedy club. This is a school.”

Still, the president of the chapter, E. Reginald Pope, said he thought firing the teacher might be too much. He suggested a severe reprimand and perhaps a suspension without pay.

“What is she going to do after being in the district for 20 years?” Pope said. “After this I don’t think she would do it again. We all make mistakes, it’s human error.”

One parent, Nadine Thomas, suggested the teacher’s students be taken on a field trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., so they could get a real lesson about the history and impact of slavery.

“The fact that children had to sit through” the lesson in Freeport “is disgusting,” Thomas said. “I don’t know how we would be able to trust her again to teach our children.”

Zadie Lauer, 15, a student at Huntington High School, said she traveled to the protest with her mother because she was so upset by the episode.

“What happened here I think is completely unacceptable,” she said. “Suggesting you write something funny about slavery isn’t just ignorance. That’s like blatant racism, because obviously there is nothing funny about it.”

Another Freeport parent, Keba Cairo, said she was “shocked” when she heard about the class lesson.

“Who would want to put a caption of something funny?” she said. “I mean 9/11 just passed. Would we ask something funny that happened on 9/11?"

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