A New York high school teacher is under fire after giving students an assignment saying George Floyd died as a result of a heart attack and drug overdose rather than because a police officer knelt on his neck for nine and a half minutes.
The assignment given Friday asked Saugerties High School students to write a paragraph with a bold “thematic” statement in the format given by the state exam using two examples. One example stated that Floyd did not die because former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin put a knee of Floyd’s neck, but rather because of a heart attack and drug overdose.
Chauvin was convicted of second- and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter last month and has since filed a motion for a new trial.
The assignment's other example asked whether Chauvin should get a new trial because new “evidence” found juror Brandon Mitchell “could not have been forthcoming in his statements” in whether he had “racially provoked” negative feelings to police officers and his involvement with Black Lives Matter.
Mitchell, the juror named in the prompt, said in his questionnaire that he had a favorable view of Black Lives Matter, which he said he interprets as a statement as opposed to a movement or organization, and did not participate in protests in Minneapolis. A social media post found after the trial showed Mitchell at last summer's March on Washington, which he said he did not view as a rally “100 percent” for Floyd or a statement on being against police brutality.
Sakinah Irizarry, who has fifth- and seventh-grade students in the district, said Wednesday that the assignment was harmful to every student, regardless of race, because it asked them to treat a traumatic experience as a thought experiment based on lies.
“Even if we were not talking about this case, specifically, it takes the death of a person, I'd say, from a very cold and distant point of view,” Irizarry said. “I keep coming back to empathy. It is not an empathetic point of view of a person who died, it is blaming a person who's died for their own death. That chips away at empathy.”
Irizarry said she has been pushing for change in the district, where she’s lived for 17 years, since 2017. She has advocated for a number of changes to address racism in curriculum and student behavior, including a restorative justice model and cultural competency trainings.
Her hope for restorative justice over punitive discipline is why she isn’t calling for the teacher’s termination, but a different form of accountability.
“A person, or people, who do harm, need to hear it," Irizarry said. "Restitution can be made, commitment to change can be made.”
She expressed these hopes to the district’s diversity panel in a letter viewed by NBC News.
“There are a lot of nice white people who want a certain type of progressive, open, broad, forward-thinking education for their children that are occasionally in the fight,” Irizarry said. ”They are Facebook brave ... but are pretty consistently absent unless the Black woman is out there in front fighting. And it's disappointing. And it's exhausting.”
Saugerties Central School District Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt said the district was reviewing the assignment in a statement Tuesday, noting that it was “interpreted by at least one student to include biased content.”
“In this instance, when the teacher realized that a student felt uncomfortable with the assignment, the student was immediately contacted in order to acknowledge and discuss the student’s concerns,” the statement said. “The student’s parents were contacted, and the family and the District discussed next steps. The assignment was also immediately revised.”
The student's mother, Barbara Gardner, told NBC News on Thursday that the teacher called to apologize after the 15-year-old raised concerns. While Gardner felt that the teacher's assignment came from ignorance, she said she did not feel the teacher was maliciously racist.
“My feelings are that the teacher definitely needs training, and I feel that this school, definitely, maybe this is a wake-up call, but in so far as this being a racist town ... I do not understand how that's growing out of the story, that Saugerties is a racist town, it's not," Gardner said.
Gardner, who grew up in New York City, said although she is not Black, she's dealt with discrimination as an openly gay women and is raising two daughters, one Black and one of mixed race. Gardner doesn't understand why the teacher picked the assignment, but also thinks the educator has been unfairly demonized.
"There are definitely things that needs to be addressed without a doubt, but I don't know, focusing on all the negatives and just, to me there's no growth from that," Gardner said. "I want conversation, I want difficult conversations. You know, that's how I feel."
The district's letter said “racially conscious curriculum and equity” would be a topic for their instructional staff.
When asked about the factual inaccuracies presented to the students, Reinhardt declined to comment.
An autopsy by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner found that while a heart problem and drug use “contributed” to Floyd’s death, the primary cause was compression on his neck and police restraint. Martin Tobin, an expert in respiratory physiology, testified that he believed Mr. Floyd died of a low level of oxygen.
Justine Tomkiell has three children in the district, the oldest of whom will attend the high school in the fall, and was made aware of the assignment Sunday. She posted a screenshot from a fellow parent on social media and has been protesting across the street from the school this week.
The assignment was racist, Tomkiell said.
“I was traumatized. I am a Black mother with three mixed children who would look Black,” Tomkiell said. “And my biggest fear is what happened with George Floyd. ... And the fact that she made this assignment, and the wording ... she chose the words that he was not murdered, and he died of a heart attack and an overdose.”
Tomkiell wants the teacher to be fired, or at the bare minimum placed on administrative leave while undergoing racial competence training. Tomkiell also wants the school to adopt zero-tolerance policies so that racist and homophobic behavior will have consequences. Tomkiell said she is focusing on policy change that creates equity for all students.
She knows her protests make some people uncomfortable, but Tomkiell said she doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.
“I live uncomfortable in my skin every day because I am not accepted here,” Tomkiell said. “So, I guess maybe they feel one inkling of what I feel when I get the hate for just speaking up against what I feel is racist.”