A history teacher at a taxpayer-funded middle school in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley was placed on administrative leave earlier this week because, students say, she singled out black and mixed race kids in her class to play slaves during a skit. Meanwhile, only white kids played the roles of aristocrats.
The teacher then allegedly responded to criticism by showing the same students a photo from the miniseries “Roots” to justify her theatrical choices.
The skit incident occurred last week at Shelburne Middle School in the small Virginia town of Staunton, reports local ABC affiliate WHSV.
The teacher is Susan Story, according to The News Leader, the local newspaper in Staunton.
Story was teaching about a rebellion by Haitian slaves around the time of the Louisiana Purchase.
“The teacher asked all of the African-American students to come to the front of the classroom,” Tamika Derozen, the parent of a sixth-grade boy in one of Story’s classes, told WHSV.
Story instructed the students to pretend like they were picking for cotton and digging for coal, according to Derozen.
The teacher also asked a few white students to come to the front of the classroom to play slave owners and aristocrats.
Other parents have stepped forward to say their children gave similar accounts of what happened in Story’s class.
“My daughter is in this class and she came home very upset the day this happened and talked to me about it,” Tania Marie Martin told The News Leader. “She said that the kids were asked if they were black or mixed with any black to stand up and be slaves. A white child asked to be a slave as well and he was told ‘no’ because he was white. I am sure it could have been handled differently afterwards, but that still would not have changed how it made the kids forced to participate to feel.”
Derozen said her son felt very conflicted.
“He said, ‘Mom, I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to walk out of the class, but I didn’t want to get in trouble,'” the mad mother told the local ABC affiliate.
Derozen said she contacted the Shelburne Middle School principal, Jennifer Morris according to the Shelburne Middle School website, to express her concerns.
“The principal apologized,” Derozen said. “She explained to me that she told the teacher you can’t single out a group of children based on their race.”
Presumably, the principal relayed Derozen’s complaint to Story because, on Monday, Story addressed complaints about the race-based skit to the entire sixth-grade class.
Story decided it would be a good idea to show students an image from “Roots,” a miniseries made in 1977 and remade in 2016, on her classroom projector.
According to Derozen’s son’s account, Story asked students if it made any sense for white students to portray slaves in a sixth-grade classroom skit.
“For those of you that I offended, I apologize,” Story then said, according to Derozen’s account. “But I want you to understand my reason for calling you up as African-Americans is because you better fit the role as a slave.”
Robert Boylan, a retired attorney and Story’s brother-in-law, sent a letter to the school district formally apologizing for her actions.
“I write on behalf of Susan Story, a gifted and highly qualified teacher who has dedicated her life to serving the educational needs of her students. She has 28 years of instructional experience, the last 10 with the Staunton School system,” Boylan stated.
“Story, with her 28 years of experience, saw from her students’ glazed expressions on Jan. 19 that they were not absorbing the information,” Boylan’s letter also said. “She decided on a role playing exercise to recreate the central participants in these events.”
Boylan speaks of Story’s high character and notes her charitable work at a Haitian orphanage.
He also notes that Story has been barred from having any contact with Shelburne Middle School. Even her email account is blocked.
Parents with children in Story’s class don’t appear to feel sorry for her plight.
“My daughter is a white child, who just knew this was wrong. Wrong enough to make a big deal at home about it,” Martin, the parent with a daughter in the class, told the newspaper.
“She should apologize, in public, to each and every student in that class.” grandparent Joi Estep added.
Staunton City Schools superintendent Linda Reviea has issued a statement.
“I want to emphasize that in no way does Staunton City Schools condone or encourage instruction that deliberately singles out a person or group because of race and subjects them to disparagement or humiliation,” the statement said, in part.
The population of Staunton, Virginia is 83.6 percent white and 12 percent black, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.