A Virginia elementary school principal has apologized to parents after students were instructed to play a Black History Month "game" in which they pretended to be runaway slaves navigating the Underground Railroad as they encountered obstacles.
The gym class activity at Madison's Trust Elementary School in Ashburn, Virginia, spurred sharp criticism from the community, and prompted the school's principal to reach out to parents to apologize for the class activity, calling it "culturally insensitive."
Michelle Thomas, president of the Loudoun NAACP Chapter, told BuzzFeed News the civil rights organization has for years received complaints from parents regarding similar activities, usually around February, over students being asked to adopt similar "roles" in games and lessons for Black History Month.
"[Slavery] was never a game, and it should never be taken lightly," she told BuzzFeed News. "It's sickening. It's racist."
Thomas said the NAACP first heard about the Feb. 5 lesson from the parents of an black third-grader who told his parents, "I played a runaway slave on the Underground Railroad."
The parents contacted the school, as well as the NAACP, prompting the school board to hold a meeting with parents about the incident, and the principal apologizing in a letter the following week.
"This is contradictory to our overall goals of empathy, affirmation, and creating a culturally responsive learning environment for all," Madison's Trust Elementary School Principal David Stewart wrote to parents in a Feb. 12 letter. "The lesson was culturally insensitive to our students and families. I extend my sincerest apology to our students and school community."
The incident, and Stewart's letter apologizing to parents, was first reported by the Loudoun Times-Mirror on Thursday after third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders at the school were asked to take part in the activity.
A lecture about the Underground Railroad was presented at the beginning of the class, and then students were divided into six groups, which each asked to overcome a physical obstacle, said Wayde Byard, spokesperson for the Loudoun County Public Schools.
"The point of the lesson was to teach communication, cooperation and teamwork," Byard told BuzzFeed News in an email.
The physical obstacles included moving between stations on a scooter without touching the ground, and moving through hula hoops without knocking them over, Byard said.
"The idea was to move as a team," he said.
The lesson was not part of the school curriculum, Byard said, and the game was presented only at Madison's Trust Elementary.
"The lesson was retaught and the mistakes with the original lesson discussed with students," he said. "As adults, we feel it is proper to model conduct and accept responsibility when a mistake is made."
Thomas said the school staff, including the three teachers and dean involved in the lesson, will undergo bias training, and ensure that interdisciplinary lessons in the future regarding history, and in particular African American history, are reviewed by the principal.
Parents and civil rights leaders were also told some sort of disciplinary action would take place, Thomas said.
The NAACP has for years fielded complaints from parents who said their children were asked to take on the roles of sharecroppers, slave owners, land owners, and slaves during Black History Month lessons, Thomas said.
While it was unclear if the game was a product of "willful ignorance or intentional racism," Thomas said the school needed to address the issue wholeheartedly, pointing to other racist scandals that have embroiled Virginia in recent weeks, including its governor and attorney general admitting to wearing blackface in the past.
"We see the thread, the fabric of racism that is woven from K-12 education, to college and to adulthood," Thomas said. "We keep applying patches instead of changing the culture."