A group of Wisconsin middle school teachers have been suspended after giving students an assignment asking them how they would ‘punish’ a slave.
Sixth graders at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie were asked the question during a lesson on the first day of Black History Month while learning about the laws of ancient Mesopotamia.
The 11-12-year-old students were asked to imagine that they were handing out punishments in accordance with a set of laws called Hammurabi’s Code.
A screenshot of the lesson shared by The Wisconsin State Journal showed the following scenario: ‘A slave stands before you. This slave has disrespected his master by telling him, ‘You are not my master!’ How will you punish this slave?’
A group of Wisconsin middle school teachers have been suspended after giving students an assignment asking them how they would ‘punish’ a slave. Pictured: A screenshot of the assignment shared by The Wisconsin State Journal
Principal Rebecca Zahn apologised for the assignment in a joint statement with the school’s assistant principal, saying it had not been ‘racially conscious’.
‘Our intent missed the mark, and for that we are deeply sorry,’ it said. ‘Going forward, we will be sure to think critically about whether our intent matches our impact’.
NBC reported that the Sun Prairie Area School District has placed the teachers involved on leave while it investigates the assignment.
What is Hammurabi’s Code?
The Code of Hammurabi was a set of 282 laws established by King Hammurabi in order to unite the Mesopotamian city-states.
The Babylonian king reigned from 1792 to 1750 B.C. and expanded the city-state of Babylon along the Euphrates River to unite all of southern Mesopotamia.
The code established standards for commercial interactions as well as setting fines and punishments.
The 282 edicts are all written in if-then form. For example, if a man steals an ox, then he must pay back 30 times its value, according to History.com.
They cover everything from family law to professional contracts and often include different forms of justice depending on the social class of those involved.
Hammurabi’s Code was carved onto a massive, finger-shaped black stone stele (pillar) that was looted by invaders and finally rediscovered in 1901.
It is currently in the Louvre, Paris.
‘We deeply regret that this lesson took place, and we also recognize that this was a breakdown in our curricular processes and our district-wide focus on equity,’ a statement from the district said.
‘In addition to immediately addressing this situation, it is important that we commit to changing our curriculum and professional development for all staff.’
However, The Wisconsin State Journal has raised questions about the origin of the lesson, which did not come from the district’s official curriculum.
The paper reported that the lesson appeared to come from a website used by teachers to buy and sell educational materials. The district has not confirmed this.
The site, Teachers Pay Teachers, had a $4 lesson plan available on Monday that included the exact wording of the assignment given to the Patrick Marsh students, The Wisconsin State Journal reported.
The site has since removed the lesson, describing it as ‘unacceptable, inappropriate and antithetical to TpT’s values’.
Marilyn Ruffin, the only person of color on the Sun Prairie School Board, is among those questioning why unsanctioned educational materials were used at all.
‘This was not a district-approved website to even go to to even get lesson plans from there,’ Ruffin said. ‘[The teachers] never got approval to do that,’ she said on Wednesday, according to The Wisconsin State Journal.
Teachers frequently draw from a wide range of sources when creating lesson plans, including textbooks, colleagues, their district’s curriculum and online networks of teachers, which can lead to inappropriate material making its way into lesson plans.
Dazarrea Ervins said she was ‘shocked’ when her son Zayvion Hopkins showed her the assignment and questioned whether the school’s email to parents was a sufficient response.
‘I can see how they’re learning about this era, but the wording of the question and the statement—it was just wrong,’ she told WMTV.
‘While an email communication from the school admits they have caused harm to students and their families, we beg the question – in the current climate in which we live, do they really understand the damage that has been caused by such an assignment?’
Hopkins said he has felt ‘unsafe and unwelcome’ at school following the lesson.
On Wednesday, WMTV reported that Hopkin’s family had hired an attorney, saying they wanted the school to be held responsible.
Attorney B’Ivory LaMarr said the assignment was ‘disgusting and unacceptable’ and said those who ‘shape the minds of our next generation’ should be held accountable.
‘When school districts have not had to face disciplinary actions for their behavior, they will continue to operate using the same mentality,’ LaMarr said, according to WMTV.
‘What has happened in this school district is appalling, and it is our hope that Zayvion’s courage will serve as a catalyst for change.’
Sixth graders at Patrick Marsh Middle School (pictured) in Sun Prairie were asked the question about how to punish a slave during a lesson on the first day of Black History Month while learning about the laws of ancient Mesopotamia
Parents and experts have pointed out that asking children to imagine themselves inflicting violence on another person is problematic, while asking them to imagine themselves as slaveholders is out of step with the norms on teaching about slavery, which focus on the enslaved people.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported that the full online version of the lesson found on Teachers Pay Teachers started: ‘Students become judges and deliver sentences’.
The paper pointed out that, in one question, the assignment refers to a slave as ‘it’.
‘A man and a barber stand before you,’ the lesson reads. ‘The man is accused of tricking the barber into marking a slave for sale when it really was not really for sale.’
Some online have said that the lesson was not inappropriate because it was set in the context of ancient Mesopotamia, rather than the United States.
The ancient region is often referred to as the birthplace of civilization and covers part of what is now the Middle East, between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
The Code of Hammurabi, which the lesson referred to, was issued by a Mesopotamian ruler though it is not clear whether the harsh punishments detailed were ever adopted.
One such punishment would allow a slave owner to cut off a slave’s ear if they were disrespectful.
Patrick Marsh Middle School is among several schools to have faced backlash over their lessons on slavery.
NBC reported that a Missouri elementary school placed a teacher on leave in 2019 after they asked students to set a price on slaves.
That same year, a Long Island teacher reportedly asked students to ‘write something funny’ about pictures of slavery.