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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  K-12 education

Cotton gin lesson at Sacajawea Middle School had no intent to harm, investigation finds

July 30, 2021 Updated Fri., July 30, 2021 at 9:45 p.m.

The Spokane Public Schools district office. (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane Public Schools district office. (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane Public Schools released the findings of an investigation into an early May incident at Sacajawea Middle School when Black twin sisters were asked to clean cotton along with the other students in a social studies class exploring the industrial revolution, including use of the cotton gin.

The eighth-grade students said they were humiliated by the lesson. Their mother, Brandi Feazell, removed the girls from the school and went public with her complaint to school district officials.

The investigator, Onik’a Gilliam-Cathcart, who specializes in discrimination and retaliation claims, determined that the teacher did not intend to harm the girls with her social studies lesson.

Among the critical findings is clarifying the actions of Sacajawea’s Assistant Principal Taylor Skidmore, who spoke with Feazell.

Feazell stated that instead of addressing her concerns of racism in the classroom, Skidmore offered to remove the girls from the class if they were uncomfortable. The investigation did not determine if Skidmore said “separate” or “segregate” the students from their white teacher.

Through interviews conducted with other students in the classroom, the investigation concluded that two students made comments that they would have “hated to be slaves and would have killed themselves” around one of the twins.

“Nevertheless, the reality is that the lesson was extremely hard for these 13-year-old Black students to process without warning and with the added element of insensitive classmates and lack of attunement,” the report states.

Gilliam-Cathcart would not provide further comment beyond the investigation.

The school district acknowledged the completion of the third-party investigation, and said changes are necessary and will be made to avoid similar incidents.

“We will need to be willing to engage in conversations that may be uncomfortable at times, but are necessary to reach our mission of “excellence for everyone,” the district stated in a letter released with the investigatory report. “The United States’ history regarding race is a difficult subjective and a divisive issue in our country.”

The school district announced it will continue culturally responsive and anti-racism training with school staff. The district also said its training gives teachers the opportunity to review their lessons.

This approach, however, does not involve Critical Race Theory, the district stated.

The school district’s Department of Family and Community Engagement is creating new training that will be embedded in the professional development modules and staff trainings that will “highlight anti-racism and cultural awareness in classrooms.”

The statement continued, stating that the Family and Community Engagement department will continue collecting feedback on culturally sensitive lessons, partnering with schools and organizations through listening sessions and focus groups for students and families to share their experiences.

The ACLU of Washington criticized the school district’s handling of the investigation.

“While we appreciate the Spokane School District’s expressed desire to work with and solicit input from community, it is irresponsible of the district to release the independent investigator’s report without a plan to address the specific harmful experiences the girls endured,” said Kendrick Washington II, the youth policy counsel at the ACLU of Washington.

Washington said the ways history is taught can cause further harm.

Asking youth, especially Black students, to clean cotton as a way to understand what slavery was like was an unnecessary part of the lesson plan, he said. Washington also noted that Skidmore’s choice to remove the children from the classroom, instead of investigating claims made by the family, may not have been appropriate .

“While I understand there’s a desire to put youth in history’s shoes, we don’t give female students nooses to see what it was like right before accused witches were hung in the Salem Witch Trials, nor do we tell kids to get under a guillotine to reenact emotions (from the French Revolution),” Washington said. “There are so many ethical and appropriate ways to teach slavery.”

Washington said Spokane Public Schools should review its curriculum through a racially equitable lens. He applauded the district’s choice to ensure community involvement in how new changes will create safe educational spaces.

“SPS needs to ensure their curriculum is going to take into account the injustices their (Black Indigenous and other people of color) students face on a historical and regular basis,” Washington said. “Learning from a BIPOC point of view would help everyone in this case.”

Brandi Feazell, the mother of the students, also responded to the findings.

“My daughters, and every student in that school, should be able to go to class knowing that they will learn in a safe and nurturing environment. They should also know that their school district will take complaints of racial discrimination and inequity seriously.”

Amber D. Dodd's work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

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