Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
A middle school assistant principal allegedly offered to segregate a pair of Black students from class after their mother took issue with a social studies teacher’s in-class assignment: cleaning raw cotton.
Now, the family of the twin eighth-grade girls is asking that the school discipline the teacher who proposed the lesson and remove the administrator who dismissed their initial concerns. They’re also asking for the district to implement anti-racism training.
The two girls, Emzayia and Zyeshauwne Feazell, 14, attend Sacajawea Middle School in Spokane, Washington. Their teacher, Cindy Schwartzenberg, apparently intended the cotton-cleaning lesson, which took place May 3, to “simulate the experience of enslaved people,” according to the ACLU of Washington. However, the school district told VICE News that the lesson was centered around America’s industrial revolution, and was highlighting the invention of the cotton gin.
The teens, who were just two of three Black students in the class, say the lesson was an embarrassing ordeal that highlighted the school’s overall lack of diversity.
“I was shocked that a teacher would bring a box of cotton into a class and tell them to pick it clean so she could teach us how slaves were back then,” Emzayia told local outlet KXLY.
The Feazell’s white classmates unknowingly made matters worse, commenting that they couldn’t believe Black people were once forced to do such a menial and difficult task, according to multiple news outlets.
“The teacher kept saying, ‘We don’t need slaves anymore,’” Zyeshauwne said in a statement released by the ACLU. “That really hurt because it felt like she was saying there was a time when slavery was okay.”
The twins’ mother, Brandi Feazell, told local news outlet Inland that her call to the school about the lesson only seemed to make matters worse. When informed of how the lesson had made her daughters feel, Assistant Principal Taylor Skidmore allegedly defended the teacher.
"He called me back later and said the best that he could do for me and the girls was that he could 'segregate' my daughters out of the classroom into a room all by themselves so they would not be around the white teacher anymore,” Feazell told Inland.
In a previous 2016 incident, Skidmore allegedly refused to admit a Black student into the building because he was wearing a hoodie, according to the ACLU. The school ended up paying a $10,000 settlement, according to the ACLU of Washington.
Sacajawea Middle School is just 3.3 percent Black, according to U.S. News. White students make up 72.4 percent of the student body.
The Feazell twins have reportedly not returned to school since the incident.
This isn’t the first time in recent memory that educators have taken problematic approaches to teaching young students about the history of slavery, and America’s lucrative and racist cotton industry. In 2019, a teacher in New Jersey sparked outrage after a lesson about slavery included students pretending to pick cotton amid whip-cracking noises, the Asbury Park Press reported. He was later cleared of wrongdoing by school officials.
A school in South Carolina also found itself in hot water in 2019 after video of a fifth grade class trip to a cotton gin went viral, complete with the children picking cotton while singing songs that included the lines: "I like it when you pick like that. I like it when you fill your sack,” and “ "I like it when you don't talk back. Make money for me.”
Spokane Public School told VICE News’ that they are investigating the cotton cleaning incident.
“We take all complaints very seriously and are committed to investigating them fully,” the district said. “There are conflicting reports regarding this incident. Once the third-party investigation is completed, we look forward to coming back to share the outcomes.”