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Black parent accuses L.A. elementary school of traumatizing her daughter with 'cotton-picking' project

The mom says in a lawsuit her daughter experienced extreme emotional distress by being involved in a project where she watched other kids pick cotton.

A Black mother filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles Unified School District, or LAUSD, in state court last week over an elementary school project that she says involved students picking cotton to learn about slavery. 

In the lawsuit obtained by NBC News, Rashunda Pitts calls the project “culturally insensitive” and says her daughter has suffered extreme emotional distress as a result of the assignment, which Pitts says terrified her daughter.

“She has uncontrollable anxiety attacks,” the lawsuit says, adding she has also experienced bouts of depression when thinking about the cotton-picking project. 

People stand outside the L.A. Superior Court building.
People stand outside the L.A. Superior Court building.Google Maps

Filed in L.A. Superior Court, the lawsuit alleges that LAUSD and Laurel Span School, the elementary school Pitts’ daughter was attending that has since closed and been replaced by Laurel Cinematic Arts Creative Tech Magnet, humiliated her by having her participate in an Antebellum project. The project led to her child experiencing anxiety attacks and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, the suit says. 

Pitts says she first noticed her daughter showing signs of distress when she became “very quiet and reserved” for a two-week period in September 2017 when the project was underway, according to the suit. About a month later, Pitts noticed a cotton field had been planted at her daughter’s school while dropping her off and brought it to the attention of the associate principal. The associate principal explained that students in her daughter’s class were reading an autobiography by Frederick Douglass in which Douglass discussed picking cotton, and the field was planted for students to have a “‘real life experience’” of what it was like to be an enslaved person, the suit says.

According to the suit, the associate principal agreed that the project was inappropriate after hearing Pitts’ concerns and offered to remove the cotton field by the end of that week or the next. 

Pitts says in the lawsuit she should have been informed about the “cotton-picking” project beforehand and that although her daughter did not have to pick any cotton, she suffered trauma while watching other children do so. 

In a statement to NBC Los Angeles in October 2017, a spokesperson for LAUSD said school administrators immediately removed the cotton plant after becoming aware of Pitts’ concerns. 

“We regret that an instructional activity in the garden at Laurel School was construed as culturally insensitive,” the spokesperson said at the time, according to the suit. “Tending to the garden where a variety of fruits, vegetables and other plants grow is a school-wide tradition that has been in place for years and has never been used as a tool to re-enact historical events.”

A spokesperson for LAUSD said in an email to NBC News on Tuesday that the district does not typically comment on pending or ongoing litigation. The former principal of Laurel Span School and the associate principal at the time of the incident did not immediately respond to a request for comment.