Investigation clears Alaska teacher in slavery lesson

Published: Nov. 8, 2019 at 8:06 PM AKST
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A preliminary internal investigation has found a teacher at North Pole High School did not violate school policies or state or federal laws when teaching a Civil War course that included showing how the South’s economic model was tied to slavery.

Some social media posts complained the project was not the appropriate way to teach slavery, and some residents complained to the school board that it was insensitive to the realities of slavery. One man complained to the school board it reduced slaves to an entry item on a plantation’s balance sheet.

The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District initiated the investigation Oct. 24 after it became aware of the concerns, district spokeswoman Yumi McCulloch said in a Friday email to The Associated Press. Once the teacher was made aware of the concerns, the instructor stopped all activities related to the assignment.

The investigation included an interview with the teacher and reviews of emails to the school board and of social media posts.

No complaints were received from parents or students, McCulloch said. It was the fifth year the assignment has been used, with no known previous complaints.

McCulloch said the assignment was one part of a larger unit and stemmed from discussions with students about why the South fought for slavery and questions from students about how slavery could be justified.

“The lesson was intended to show how the South’s economic model was tied to slavery and how the belief in the model had been handed down from generation to generation in the South,” McCulloch said.

The next week’s lesson included the North’s response to slavery and the moral argument of the abolitionist movement.

The investigating officers found “the two lessons appear to be balanced,” she said.

The first lesson included students researching costs associated with a large plantation, including what crops to plant, how much yield per acre, the price and the costs of slave labor versus the profit of crop production.

“The teacher’s goal for the assignment was to help students understand the economic drivers behind the South’s defense of slavery,” McCulloch said.

Resident David Vance told the school board Tuesday night that he appreciated that the project was an attempt to understand the causes and the deep divisions behind the Civil War.

“However, as framed, it understands the pre-Civil War South and plantations in terms of a balance sheet in which everything is reduced to price and cost: human lives, political institutions and everything,” he said, according to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner .

McCulloch said district officials have discussed the assignment and concerns with the teacher, whom she said has been receptive. The district did not release the teacher’s name.

The teacher, she said, took students to see the movie “Harriett,” which details the life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who took about 70 slaves to freedom on the famed Underground Railroad, to expand the students’ awareness of the time period and the ramifications and inequality of slavery.

Officials also have discussed effective practices in teaching about historical trauma with the instructor, a dialogue that will be expanded districtwide, McCulloch said.

The district also plans to review curriculum policy, procedures and related staff training.