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Wisconsin teachers suspended after asking students how they would 'punish' slaves

The Sun Prairie Area School District said it will be reviewing its social studies curriculum “with the lens of racial trauma and curriculum violence."

A group of suburban Madison, Wisconsin, middle school teachers are on leave after giving students an assignment that asked them how they would “punish” a slave.

The assignment was given to sixth grade students at Patrick Marsh Middle School for a lesson about a set of laws established by King Hammurabi in ancient Mesopotamia, according to a statement from the school. Principal Rebecca Zahn issued a joint statement with the assistant principal apologizing for the assignment not being “racially conscious.”

“Our intent missed the mark, and for that we are deeply sorry,” the statement said. “Going forward we will be sure to think critically about whether our intent matches our impact.”

Sun Prairie Area School District is investigating the assignment and has placed the teachers involved on leave, a standard procedure for such a probe, it said in a statement. The district is also reviewing its social studies curriculum “with the lens of racial trauma and curriculum violence.”

“We deeply regret that this lesson took place, and we also recognize that this was a breakdown in our curricular processes and our district-wide focus on equity,” the district statement said. “In addition to immediately addressing this situation, it is important that we commit to changing our curriculum and professional development for all staff.”

Dazarrea Ervins, whose son Zayvion showed her the assignment, told NBC affiliate WMTV that she was “shocked” at what she saw, noting the incident occured on the first day of Black History Month.

“I can see how they’re learning about this era, but the wording of the question and the statement—it was just wrong,” Ervins said.

Ancient Mesopotamia is often referred to as the birth of civilization, as the society sparked a number of cultural norms seen today such as organization of cities and agriculture. Mesopotamia spread across what is known today as the Middle East, between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

The Code of Hammurabi, the set of laws being taught to the Patrick Marsh sixth graders, included a number of laws on punishments, which included the concept of “an eye for an eye.” Punishments for slaves were also included, such as a law that permitted a slave owner to cut off a slave’s ear if they disrespected their owner.

The lesson plan was obtained from Teachers Pay Teachers, an online marketplace for educational resources. The organization said it has a strict policy on inappropriate content and called the lesson "unacceptable, inappropriate, and antithetical" to its values.

Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie, Wisc.
Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie, Wisc.Google Maps

"Racist or offensive material is strictly prohibited on TpT," it said in a statement to NBC News. "As soon as we were made aware of this resource, we immediately removed it from the site."

Schools have faced serious backlash over the years for similar assignments on slavery. A Missouri elementary school teacher was placed on leave in 2019 after asking students to set a “price” on slaves. Another teacher on Long Island, New York, asked students to "write something funny" about pictures of slavery that same year.

And last year a Tennessee school district dismissed a student-teacher for asking fourth grade students to recite graphic, violent methods to control slaves during a Black History Month assignment.