(The Root) — When it comes to teaching America's ugly history of slavery, how far is too far? What's the appropriate age and approach? The answers to these questions are being discussed right now in Hartford, Conn., where the school system is under fire for a controversial field trip and methodology of teaching seventh-grade middle school students about slavery.
As reported in the Hartford Courant, Sandra and James Baker were not told that their 12-year-old daughter, who is African American, and fellow classmates would take part in a slavery re-enactment that included the use of racial slurs and simulations of life on a slave ship while on a field trip. But that was part of the curriculum when the Bakers' daughter, formerly a student at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy (the Bakers have pulled her out of the school and the Hartford school system), visited Nature's Classroom in Charlton, Mass.
The Bakers filed a human rights complaint on behalf of their daughter with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities against the state Department of Education.
According to the Bakers, the re-enactment exercise occurred on the third night and included threatening language and use of a racial epithet; packing together students in a dark room, as if they were on a slave ship; and hiding in the woods from "white masters" — instructors at Nature's Classroom who were white.
WFSB Channel 3 Eyewitness News has more details of the horrifying lesson.
James Baker shared his daughter's experiences with the Hartford School Board.
"'The instructor told me if I were to run, they would whip me until I bled on the floor and then either cut my Achilles so I couldn't run again, or hang me,'" he told the school board.
They pretended to be on a slave ship.
They pretended to pick cotton.
They pretended their instructors were their masters.
But to hear Nature's Classroom Director John G. Santos tell it, that's just the way they do things in the education program, which has 13 locations throughout New England and New York.
Thousands of schoolchildren have attended the program in recent decades, and the Underground Railroad exercise — "one of 500 different activities that we do," Director John G. Santos said — is only offered to groups of students who are staying for a few days.
The slavery re-enactment is an "activity that has validity, it's an historical event, it's a simulation," Santos said Thursday. Although Nature's Classroom is focused on ecology, "ecology includes humankind and we're working on behalf, and with the schools, that have four major subjects, history being one of them, the social sciences another."
The Bakers, on the other hand, are not buying it, which is why they voiced their criticisms at a recent school board meeting. "The fact that they used the n-word. I mean, how dare you say that to my child and call it an educational experience? How dare you say that to any child?" Sandra Baker said, according to WFSB.
Jozen Cummings is the author and creator of the popular relationship blog Until I Get Married, which is currently in development for a television series with Warner Bros. He also hosts a weekly podcast with WNYC about Empire called Empire Afterparty, is a contributor at VerySmartBrothas.com and works at Twitter as an editorial curator. Follow him on Twitter.