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Virginia School District Plans For Bias Training After Black History Month Slavery ‘Game’

Virginia's Loudoun County Schools says it plans to address racism and inequity following a "culturally insensitive" lesson on the Underground Railroad.

A Virginia school district has detailed its plans to address racial inequity with bias training after parents criticized a Black History Month “game” based on the Underground Railroad at one of its elementary schools.

Loudoun County Public Schools Superintendent Eric Williams released a joint statement on Friday, calling a lesson at Madison’s Trust Elementary School on the Underground Railroad earlier this month “inappropriate and culturally insensitive.”

Madison’s Trust Elementary in Ashburn, about 30 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., received fierce scrutiny after third, fourth and fifth graders were instructed to participate in a Black History Month activity in gym class, which involved escaping through an obstacle course meant to represent the Underground Railroad, the Loudoun Times-Mirror reported on Thursday. 

Michelle Thomas, a pastor and Loudoun NAACP chapter president, told the publication she received several complaints from parents who accused the school of having children pretend to be runaway slaves, including a small group of black students. 

The district released its latest statement in partnership with The Minority Student Achievement Advisory Committee, the Loudoun County Chapter of the NAACP and the Loudoun Freedom Center.

It said the county has previously struggled with “inequities in student achievement gaps, discipline disproportionality, underrepresentation of minority students in advanced programs and courses, and the lack of a diversified teacher workforce.”

“We acknowledge that this incident at Madison’s Trust is a symptom of a broader issue,” the statement e-mailed to HuffPost read.  

Harriet Tubman historic site in Dorchester County, Maryland.
Harriet Tubman historic site in Dorchester County, Maryland.

Black students make up nearly 7 percent of the school district’s population with 6 percent reported as “multiracial,” according to the Loudoun County Public Schools website. 

Wayde Byard, Loudoun County Public Schools public information officer, told the Times-Mirror that students weren’t designated as “slaves” or “slave owners.”

“It trivializes something that is important,” Byard said, according to the Washington Post. “There was an error made here. . . . Slavery is not a game.”

Thomas claimed, however, that this was not the first time the district received complaints as it relates to issues of race. 

“Loudoun County has a history of miseducating kids, number one, and perpetrating racist things amongst our students,” she told the Times-Mirror. “This is not the first one. This is the first one of many. This is the most egregious, and the timing is incredible.”

Madison’s Trust principal David Stewart sent a letter apologizing for the activity to parents on Feb. 12. 

“This is contradictory to our overall goals of empathy, affirmation, and creating a culturally responsive learning environment for all,” the letter read according to a copy e-mailed to HuffPost. “The purpose of this letter, in all transparency, is to share our actions and develop a plan to prevent this from happening again.”

As the Times-Mirror noted, the controversy comes as the state’s top officials, Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, both face scandals involving the racist practice of wearing blackface.

The joint statement released Friday outlines the district’s plans and “systemic approach” to address its issues of inequity.

Among its action items, includes the creation of a diversity recruiter to focus on diversifying the teacher workforce, an unconscious bias training for hiring managers and its efforts to reduce discipline disproportionality between black and white students. (Read the full list here.)

“Loudoun County Public Schools is committed to dedicating the resources necessary to address issues of equity now and in the future,” the statement read. “We pledge ongoing communication and transparency to our community as we make progress.”

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