The families of Patrick Marsh Middle School students are suing the Sun Prairie Area School District over an assignment that asked some sixth grade students how they would punish a slave under ancient Mesopotamian law. The assignment was given back in February, on the first day of Black History Month.
The suit claims pupil discrimination, intentional infliction of emotional distress, violation of Civil Rights, deprivation of rights, violation of the First Amendment and emotional anguish. Attorney for the families B’Ivory LaMarr said the school needs to take stronger action to make sure this does not happen again.
“This is about accountability,” LaMarr said, adding, “Their actions has resulted in real harm.”
In a statement, one of the parents suing the district, Dazarrea Ervins, asked, “in the current climate in which we live, do they really understand the damage that has been caused by such an assignment?”
Ervins is joined in the suit by Priscilla Jones, whose 12-year-old son George was one of the students who received the assignment.
“Just coming home to see my kid just crying and hurt like that, that hurt me,” Jones said, describing Feb. 1, the day the assignment was given.
The three teachers at the heart of the controversial assignment given to some Sun Prairie Area School District middle-school students have all resigned from their positions following a third-party investigation. The teachers’ resignations will take effect at the end of the year; however they will not be back in the classroom this year or next year either. The teachers, whose names were not released, had been placed on paid administrative leave ever since news of the assignment became public.
“Acknowledging harm and offering an apology is a start, but it is not a solution,” LaMarr argued.
LaMarr explained the parents are seeking compensatory damages, but said the case is not about money because no amount of money can restore dignity. He added the suit is also asking the court to order the district to implement programs like diversity training for staff and counseling services for students impacted by the assignment.
“They have crying spells, they have a severe amount of mental anguish,” LaMarr explained.
Sun Prairie Area School District officials said staff do receive equity training but more work can be done.
Jones said even after support from the community and friends as well as the three teachers’ resignation, her son does not want to go back to school.
“He should be talking about having fun, he should be doing activities that make him happy,” she said, adding, “So no, this is not just a simple question that’s going to go away.”
The district has not made any other staffing changes in light of the situation. As part of the investigation, district officials interviewed all three teachers, two of the teachers twice, an attorney for the district Lori Lubinsky previously told NBC15 News.
“I concluded that the lesson was given, it was created by teachers on their own, without building or district approval, that the questions were inappropriate,” Lubinsky said. “They were inconsistent with the district’s vision and mission, and violated district policies and procedures.”
She noted that the question likely came from a website called Teachers Pay Teachers, an online marketplace for education resources. She also noted that while a unit on Mesopotamia is part of the approved district curriculum, the question and specific lesson involving the question were not.
Teachers Pay Teachers released a statement after the investigation, saying the assignment was “antithetical” to its values and should not have been on the platform.
“As soon as we were made aware of this content, we removed it from our platform. We unequivocally stand against anything that may cause trauma or further the marginalization of people of color,” a Teachers Pay Teachers spokesperson said.
Sun Prairie Superintendent Brad Saron previously told NBC15 that following the third-party investigation, the district is working to hire a Director of Systemic Equity, aiming for a July 1 hiring date. The district’s social studies curriculum is also being reviewed.
“We will convene other subject areas also to begin to review curriculum to ensure that curriculum violence does not occur again, and that is in line with our vision, our values, and the board’s expectations,” Saron explained.
Saron added the district will also seek an equity assessment and audit to look at areas they can improve. He also said they plan to work with the community to focus on equity in the curriculum and engage in “community-wide healing discussions.”
The district is not commenting specifically on the lawsuit at this time.
Hammurabi’s Code was a set of 282 laws established by King Hammurabi in order to unite the Mesopotamian city-states. The school explained that the assignment was meant to show how order was kept in the civilization, how laws were created and how they were “unjust.”
The question, one of a series about the ancient law code asked, “A slave stands before you. This slave has disrespected his master by telling him ‘You are not my master!’ How will you punish this slave?”