Spokane Family Demands Equitable Changes After Two Black Middle School Students Were Asked to Clean Cotton for Social Studies Lesson
SPOKANE, Wash. — A family in Spokane is demanding that a school administrator be removed after he suggested he could “segregate” two Black middle school students who were directed to clean freshly picked cotton as part of a classroom assignment. They are also demanding policy and curriculum changes to assure that no child has to endure what their children experienced.
Taylor Skidmore, Principal Assistant at Sacajawea Middle School, offered to remove the students, 14-year-old twins Emzayia and Zyeshauwne Feazell, from their social studies class when their mother called to raise concerns about the cotton lesson, which was intended to simulate the experience of enslaved people.
Brandi Feazell said she was shocked at Skidmore’s suggestion to segregate her daughters from their class, which he said would allow them to avoid interacting with the teacher, who is white.
On May 3, Emzayia and Zyeshauwne said their fifth-period social studies teacher took out a box of raw cotton and told the class they were going to do a “fun” activity to see who could clean cotton the fastest.
“As two of the only three Black students in the class that day, my daughters already felt singled out during an activity that required them to clean cotton,” said Brandi Feazell. “Separating them from the rest of the class would only compound their pain and isolation and do nothing to change the racist culture and policies that led to this inappropriate and harmful lesson in the first place.”
Emzayia and Zyeshauwne said they felt embarrassed and angry during the lesson, especially when they overheard white students commenting about how they would not have picked cotton if they were Black. The lesson, Emzayia and Zyeshauwne said, was part of a unit about industrial economics, factory systems and trade unions.
“We didn’t learn about the slave trade or anything about the history of slavery,” Emzayia said. “The lesson made it seem like enslaved people existed just to pick and clean cotton.”
“The teacher kept saying, ‘We don’t need slaves anymore,’” Zyeshauwne said. “That really hurt because it felt like she was saying there was a time when slavery was okay.”
Rather than taking the allegations seriously, Feazell said, Skidmore dismissed her concerns and told her that the teacher, Cindy Schwartzenberg, was the “kindest, gentlest person” and would never have given students such an assignment.
For Emzayia and Zyeshauwne, the incident has compounded the trauma they were already experiencing after racist bullying at a school in another district — where administrators also failed to act — prompted them to transfer to Sacajawea. Sacajawea has the highest percentage of white students (70.8%) and the lowest percentage of black students (3.3%) of any middle school in Spokane Public Schools. The twins have been out of school since the cotton lesson – over seventeen days – and do not feel comfortable going back until the incident is adequately addressed by Spokane Public Schools, including providing them support to return to school safely. It is the family’s hope that the personnel, policy, and curriculum changes they are demanding will protect other children in the district. These steps would help the school district fulfill the promise of the equity resolution that its Board passed last June.
This is not the first time Skidmore has been accused of discrimination. In 2016, Spokane Public Schools agreed to pay $10,000 to settle a case that went to the Washington State Court of Appeals after a Black student alleged that Skidmore discriminated against him because of his race, including refusing to enroll him in school when he arrived wearing a hoodie.
In addition to asking that Skidmore be removed, the family wants the social studies teacher and other school administrators who failed to act promptly and take the incident seriously to face discipline. They are also asking for a formal, public apology from Spokane Public Schools and for anti-racism training to be implemented districtwide.
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