NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools and a teacher last fall over a controversial assignment taught at a Tennessee elementary school about keeping Black slaves under control.
A Nashville, Tennessee, family filed the lawsuit on behalf of their son, referred to as “John Doe,” who has autism.
The assignment, called “Let’s Make a Slave,” was given to a fourth-grade class at Waverly Belmont Elementary School in February 2020 and focused on a Willie Lynch speech said to have been given in the 1700s by a West Indian plantation owner to white Virginia colonists about how to control their slaves.
The family claimed the “wild graphic and inappropriate” content caused physical and emotional harm to their child, who was in fourth grade at the time.
U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger dismissed the case Monday, saying there isn’t evidence of “actionable harassment” or that the school district was “deliberately indifferent” to complaints of racial discrimination or harassment.
But Trauger did acknowledge the lesson “may have been ill-advised and developmentally inappropriate for the age group,” according to court documents.
Mock slave auctions, racist lessons:How US history class often traumatizes, dehumanizes Black students
‘Wild graphic and inappropriate’:Metro Schools employee alleges she was demoted after complaining about slavery assignment
The lawsuit claimed that the student suffered repeated acts of racial harassment by adults and peers. In addition, the lawsuit claimed the school district had knowledge of the harassment, including teasing by the student’s classmates, and the “racially hostile educational environment” but were indifferent to the circumstances.
“The complaint alleges that the lesson predictably ‘spilled onto the playground’ … and that the other students ‘joked’ about the Black History lesson, telling Doe, ‘You are my slave,'” Trauger wrote in her ruling. But the complaint didn’t “suggest how frequently or for what length of time this teasing occurred.”
Legal precedent set by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that the federal judge cited in the ruling requires such teasing be “systematic” or “pervasive” in order to be deemed harassment. It also is required to “[mean] something more than just juvenile behavior among students, even behavior that is antagonistic, non-consensual, and crass.”
Doe’s family argued the student, who is Black, was repeatedly terrified and thought his family could be broken apart, separated, or set on fire, according to the original lawsuit. He was afraid that he could be sold as a slave. The boy’s mother learned of the lesson when she found the assignment in his backpack.
The assignment led to outrage, including calls from community and city leaders asking for stronger oversight and policies for the district — which serves nearly 70% Black and brown children.
A student-teacher from Vanderbilt University led the lesson under the supervision of the teacher, Andrew Herman, and was dismissed from Metro Nashville Public Schools following the incident. Herman was also placed on administrative leave at the time but has since returned to employment by the district.
These actions by the district, the judge’s ruling states, show that it was not indifferent and did not ignore Doe’s concerns.
“We appreciate the court’s finding that the district acted reasonably in addressing the unsanctioned actions by a student-teacher in providing that lesson,” Sean Braisted, spokesperson for Metro Nashville Public Schools, said in a statement Tuesday. “As a district, we will continue to work with teachers to provide approved lessons and professional development necessary to educate students on difficult and complex historical and current events in the appropriate way.”
Related:Tennesseans tackle tough subjects like slavery, segregation in the classroom using local context, living history
More:Critical race theory isn’t taught in Tennessee schools. Here’s what is being taught about race.
At the time, the district did characterize the content of the assignment as “not age-appropriate or within the scope of sequence for the fourth grade class” though.
The judge echoed the district and even acknowledged that the lesson might have been “especially inappropriate” for Doe, a student with a known disability but ruled that the educational content did not constitute “harassment on the basis of race.”
“The court also accepts that the entire incident was extremely traumatic for a sensitive child with autism,” Trauger wrote. “While the lesson in question may well have been especially inappropriate for John Doe as a student with a known disability, and even developmentally inappropriate for all fourth graders, that does not mean that its educational content constituted actionable harassment on the basis of race.”
Justin Gilbert, a Chattanooga-based attorney who specializes in education-related cases and represented the student’s family, declined to comment on the judge’s ruling Tuesday because he is representing similar cases in court at this time.
Less than a month after filing the lawsuit on behalf of Doe, his mother, referred to as Jane Doe in court documents to protect the identity of her child, filed another lawsuit alleging she was demoted from her position with the district after filing the first lawsuit on behalf of her son.
The employee alleged that she was fired from her position in Metro School’s central office and was then passed over for a new position.
In the second lawsuit, filed in federal court in November, Doe claimed her previous job position was eliminated and she was demoted back to a classroom teaching position — and only then because she is tenured — in retaliation for speaking out and filing the first lawsuit over the assignment and the harm her son suffered.
The ruling comes as educators and lawmakers alike debate how topics like slavery, race, and racism is taught in Tennessee schools.
Earlier this month, lawmakers banned the teaching of critical race theory in public schools.
The bill, which awaits Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s signature, threatens to withhold funding from public schools that teach that the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist or that individuals are “inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive” because of their race or sex, among other provisions.
Educators have since argued that teaching history — which can often include talking about race and racism — will only become more difficult.
The Tennessee Department of Education has said it isn’t aware of any schools currently teaching the themes in question in the bill nor has the department received any complaints about schools doing so.
Instead, incidents of lessons gone wrong — like the one cited in this lawsuit — and calls for more anti-racism or implicit bias training for educators have been common across the state in recent years.
Follow Meghan Mangrum on Twitter @memangrum.