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Rochester teacher under investigation after social studies lesson on slavery goes viral

Precious Tross holds pieces of cotton her daughter brought home from social studies class on Tuesday.
Precious Tross
Precious Tross holds pieces of cotton her daughter brought home from social studies class on Tuesday.

A School of the Arts teacher is on administrative leave, and an investigation is open after parents and students raised concerns over a social studies lesson.

Seventh-grader Jahmiere O’Neal said Tuesday started out as a normal school day until third period, before lunch. That’s when he stepped into his social studies class.

Part of the lesson that day was about slavery and how cotton was processed, he said.

“He gave the whole class cotton and we were made to pick out the cotton seeds,” Jahmiere said. “He said, ‘Better clean it right, boy.’”

Most of his classmates are Black and brown, he said. Their teacher, Patrick Rausch, is white.

“We were all shocked. We were just surprised that he would give us cotton and we didn't know what to do,” Jahmiere said.

Jahmiere’s mom, Vialma Ramos-O'Neal, and another student’s mom, Precious Tross, are outraged. Both parents are calling for Rausch to be fired and his teaching license revoked.

Tross said her daughter, who was also in the class, was visibly upset when she told her what happened.

“My daughter was looking to the floor. She should not have experienced something like that,” a tearful Tross said. “That is a mockery. That is disrespectful. You do not put our kids in any situation like that when you know our history. That hurts me to the core.”

Tross took a photo of the pieces of cotton that her daughter was given in class and posted it on Facebook. Her post has been shared about 500 times so far.

“I don't have a problem with you teaching our kids about slavery and what our ancestors went through and how they had to deal with that,” she said. “Our teachers back in the day told us that, but they don't bring cotton and make you pick cotton seeds out of cotton. And you got the audacity to put the instructions on the board for them.”

WXXI News reached out to Rausch, who responded, “No comment.”

Rausch appears to have a history of alternative educational approaches. When he taught at East High School, he led an alternative learning program called Rochester Matters in the late 2000s. The idea behind the project was to create an interdisciplinary, hands-on curriculum built on experiential learning.

“The premise behind Rochester Matters is that children are most engaged and apt to learn when they can connect the topics and issues they are studying in school to their own life experiences,” Rausch wrote in a guest essay for the Democrat and Chronicle in 2007.

An open investigation

The Rochester City School District said on Thursday that the teacher, who they did not name, has been put on leave and an investigation is underway.

The district did not say whether the leave was paid or unpaid. WXXI News has confirmed that Rausch is the tenured teacher in question and is on paid leave.

Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski said he’s aware of the situation that involves a union member, but he's wary of jumping to any conclusions until the investigation is complete.

“While we believe very strongly in due process and the right to an existing lawful protocol, we do not defend the indefensible,” Urbanski said. “If someone departs from what they should be doing, they should suffer the consequences, but due process has to be allowed first.”

City Newspaper
Adam Urbanski is the president of the Rochester Teachers Association.

In a letter to parents, School of the Arts principal Kelly Nicastro said that some students may be interviewed as part of an investigation, and that parents would be notified if their child is selected.

Board of Education Vice President Beatriz LeBron was notified about Tross’s post a few hours after it was published. LeBron sent Tross a direct message offering to have SOTA’s school chief follow up the next day.

On Friday, school board President Cynthia Elliot said in a statement that "in a District of Black and brown students, it is important to be sensitive of the historical framework by which our students are engaging and learning."

Questions on how — and what — to teach

The incident comes at a time of heightened debate over how – or even if – U.S. racial history and the legacy of racist policies should be taught in schools, including pushback on critical race theory, an academic framework used to study systemic racism.

In December, Republican lawmakers in the New York Assembly introduced a bill that would prohibit teaching critical race theory courses in schools.

Historian Juklain Hayter told NPR last year that erasing certain dark chapters in the nation’s history would be keeping with educational practices of the last century.

“If you look at a history textbook from the mid-20th century, you'd be hard-pressed to find people of color, women and even poor white folks, for that matter,” Hayter told NPR. “And when you see these folks in these texts, they're almost always portrayed as inconsequential or dehumanized figures.”

When it comes to addressing these subjects, Urbanski said teachers have to be aware of the impact a lesson can have on a student.

“Every good educator knows that what is the right lesson for a student includes taking into consideration who the students are,” Urbanski said. “That's common sense. That's common decency."

In the past few years, there have been similar cases around the country, and backlash to history lessons that involved students picking cotton and simulating aspects of slavery.

In one case two years ago in New Jersey, a teacher allegedly instructed students to lie on the floor and pick cotton while playing a recording with the sound of whipping.

The teacher said the purpose was to educate students “on this appalling aspect of U.S. history and make it resonate with them.” After an investigation, the district cleared the teacher of any improper behavior.

Simulations and roleplaying are not unusual approaches to teaching a lesson, Urbanski said, but there’s a line between what is acceptable and what is not.

In the case at School of the Arts, Jahmiere said whatever the lesson was trying to teach, the message that came across was deeply hurtful.

“It made me feel bad to be a Black person,” Jahmiere said.

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.