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'Let's Make a Slave' lesson lawsuit dismissed in Tennessee

The student's family said in the suit that the “wild graphic and inappropriate” lesson caused physical and emotional harm to their child, who is Black and has autism.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed last fall against the Metro Nashville Public Schools and a teacher over an elementary school assignment called “Let’s Make a Slave.”

The Nashville Tennessean reports the lesson was given to a fourth grade class at an elementary school, Waverly Belmont, in February 2020. It focused on a 1700s speech given by plantation owner to white Virginia colonists on how to keep their Black slaves under control.

The family of the student, referred to as “John Doe,” said in the suit that the “wild graphic and inappropriate” lesson caused physical and emotional harm to their child, who is Black and has autism. The student said he was afraid he could be sold as a slave or that his family could be separated, according to the newspaper.

In the lawsuit, the family said the school district was indifferent to repeated acts of racial harassment directed toward the student by peers and adults.

U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger dismissed the case on Monday.

Waverly Belmont Elementary in Nashville, Tenn.
Waverly Belmont Elementary in Nashville, Tenn.Google Maps

“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,” the judge wrote.

According to legal precedent set by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, teasing has to be “systematic” or “pervasive” to be considered harassment. Trauger said the extent of the teasing wasn’t made clear in the complaint.

Outrage ensued after the assignment drew wider public attention. Community and city leaders asked for stronger oversight and policies in the district with a student body that’s majority Black and children of other minorities, according to The Tennessean.

The student-teacher from Vanderbilt University who led the lesson was dismissed by the school district, the newspaper reported. Andrew Herman, the teacher who supervised the assignment, was placed on administrative leave but has returned to his job.

“We appreciate the court’s finding that the district acted reasonably in addressing the unsanctioned actions by a student teacher in providing that lesson,” said Sean Braisted, spokesperson for Metro Nashville Public Schools, in a statement Tuesday.

The statement added, “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.”

Educators and lawmakers have recently been debating how topics such as slavery and racism are explained in the state’s schools. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, said earlier this month that race shouldn’t be taught in a “divisive” way.

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