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Hartford, Conn., parents were shocked to discover that their 12-year-old daughter and her classmates were called the N-word, threatened and chased through the woods during a slavery re-enactment exercise, prompting the couple to file a complaint against the school district with the state Human Rights Commission.

The story calls into the question the judgment of the directors of Nature’s Classroom in Charlton, Mass., who “terrorized” the kids during their four-day field trip with a nighttime Underground Railroad exercise.

Sandra Baker went before the Hartford School Board to talk about her daughter’s experience and to question the judgment of school administrators. “I ask that you imagine these phrases being yelled at our 12-year-old child and their friends,” said Baker, a social worker. “‘Bring those (N-word) to the house over there. (N-word) if you can read, there’s a problem. Dumb, dark-skinned (N-word). How dare you look at me?’”

“The fact that they used the ‘N-word,’” Baker later told a reporter from Hartford’s WSFB, “I mean, how dare you say that to my child and call it an educational experience? How dare you say that to any child? It’s a town of people of color. Really. I mean, Hartford. You could not see something was wrong with this?”

Baker said parents were not informed that students would participate in a slavery re-enactment.

“I said, ‘How was your trip?’” Baker recalled. “She started telling me what happened. I was like, ‘What?’ I was stunned. … We crossed all our t’s and dotted all our i’s. This, I didn’t see coming.”

The complaint by Sandra Baker and her husband James Baker was filed in March with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, according to the Hartford Courant, which was told by a commission spokesman that it was “an active case” and so no further information would be released.

The Bakers told the Hartford School Board that their daughter — now an eighth-grader who has left the Hartford school system — and other students were subjected to “social and emotional abuse” during last November’s four-day trip.

The Bakers said the re-enactment occurred on the third night and included threatening language and use of a racial epithet; packing together students in a dark room, as if they were on a slave ship; and hiding in the woods from “white masters”—instructors at Nature’s Classroom who were white— with the students acting as escaped slaves.

Glenn Cassis, executive director of the state’s African-American Affairs Commission, called the case “outrageous.”

While Nature’s Classroom describes itself as a residential environmental education program with about a dozen sites in New England and New York, including four locations in Connecticut, its director John G. Santo said thousands of schoolchildren have attended the program in recent decades and the Underground Railroad exercise—which Santos said is “one of 500 different activities that we do”—is only offered to groups of students who are staying for a few days.

It’s an “activity that has validity, it’s a historical event, it’s a simulation,” Santos told the Hartford Courant.

However, he said, “No one at Nature’s Classroom would ever endorse the use of the N-word. … Come on. Can it happen? Of course it can happen. Stupid things happen.” Santos said he apologizes for “any impact upon a young person.”

He pointed out that the Bakers’ daughter could have chosen not to participate in the re-enactment, and emphasized that “it’s a complex world and I absolutely believe that at a middle-grade level … the Underground Railroad is only one attempt at making individuals sensitive to an issue.”

In seventh grade, “these are kids, sorry to say, that will be given cars in four more years,” Santos said. During the slavery re-enactment, middle school students had “the ability to play-act. … They pretended to pick cotton, they pretended to be in a slave ship, they pretended to have slave masters …”

“Was it scary? Yes,” Santos said.

The goal for students undergoing the exercise is “awareness of physical and emotional and cultural supremacy over another,” said Santos, who compared the subjugation of slavery to current-day bullying. “It’s a very, very heartfelt understanding of an underclassed group … a personal reaction to the historical event, bringing it to bear on day-to-day living.”

Santos met in August with state education officials to discuss the program.

“It’s abominable. No way in the world should this be happening here or anywhere in 2013,” Cassis said. “Kids at that age being traumatized in a re-enactment … makes no sense. Why has this been going on for so many years?”

“It just doesn’t add up,” Cassis continued. “Someone was asleep at the wheel. … Having students feel like they were slaves, like they were bunched in a slave ship, that their loved ones could be killed, that they could be killed — what’s the educational objective of that? How is that tied into Common Core learning?”

“We’re not trying to scare these kids straight,” Cassis said. “We don’t need this.”

H/T: Atlanta Black Star

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Nick Chiles

Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.


  1. Way beyond acceptable. There are ways of teaching children about the horrors of slavery without demeaning, frightening, etc. As for a child opting out, most children will not do that when they are with their friends and part of a group. Children don’t like to be singled out. Amazingly the Holocaust Museums are able to take children, usually middle school and older, and adults through the horrors of entering a Concentration Camp without hurling “words” at them or frightening them beyond what would be expected. Seems to me there must be a better way to teach this history.

  2. And the lesson is? That enslavement was terrible, frightening, and demeaning? I think kids can understand that without experiencing it. What a thoughtless, pointless, misguided exercise.

  3. I don’t have a problem with schools teaching about the Underground Railroad and slavery. I do have a problem with “educators” leaving out the fact that there were slave revolts. Where was the “pretend” Nat Turner? How did slavery come to an end? The purpose of this exercise was to reinforce white supremacy and black inferiority. This was a pathetic exercise in reliving the past where white people were free to abuse blacks and their children.

    This is a testament to the fact that the public educations system has never promised to provide their students learn anything to make them succcessful or self-respecting citizens. As a matter of fact in the book, Black Students, Middle Class Teachers by Jawanza Kunjufu states that inferior curriculum is taught to CREATE inmate for be penal system.

    Parents of public school students need to use his as an example of why they need to have more say so over the curriculum taught. The goal of teaching the children’s about “awareness of physical and emotional and cultural supremacy over another” has always been the goal of the public education system ever since we fought tooth and nail to intergrate.

    Ask yourself this: Why didn’t the Jews allow the Germans to “educate” their children? Think about that…

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