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Sun Prairie teachers resign after slavery assignment controversy

Published: Apr. 13, 2021 at 5:02 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 14, 2021 at 6:45 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - The three teachers at the heart of a controversial assignment given to some Sun Prairie Area School District middle-school students have all resigned from their positions.

The district made the announcement Tuesday as it released the findings from an investigation into the February assignment in which some sixth-grade students at Patrick Marsh Middle School were asked about ancient Mesopotamian law that included a question about how students would punish a slave.

Superintendent Brad Saron and Lori Lubinsky, an independent attorney who led the investigation into the assignment, sat down with NBC15 News for an exclusive interview about the controversy.

The investigation revealed the three teachers involved created the lesson independently, meaning they did not bring the lesson to any other Sun Prairie school or district-level administrators to get it approved, Lubinsky stated.

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.

“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.”

The teachers, whose names were not released, had been placed on administrative leave ever since news of the assignment became public.

The teachers’ resignations will take effect at the end of the year; however they will not be back in the classroom this year, Lubinsky noted, adding that they will not be back next year either.

“They were not non-renewed, they were not terminated, they chose to resign,” she said. “Their resignation is effective at the end of the school year, however, the district will not be bringing them back to the classroom and therefore, they will not be back this school year, nor will they be back next school year.”

Lubinsky added that the current administration “has no intent to re-employ these teachers.” The district has not made any other staffing changes in light of the situation.

As part of the investigation, Lubinsky interviewed all three teachers, two of the teachers twice.

“Upon reflection, all three teachers agreed that the questions were inappropriate and never should have been given. They were all remorseful and apologetic for their error in judgment,” she said. “They could not, to my satisfaction, explain adequately why they didn’t come to that conclusion before the lesson was given. They just didn’t understand and appreciate and evaluate how the questions could be interpreted by others before they gave the lesson.”

A spokesperson for Teachers Pay Teachers released a statement Wednesday, saying they have removed the content from their platform.

“This offensive resource is antithetical to TpT’s values and has no place in schools or on our platform,” the company stated. “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.”

Reaction

Attorney B’Ivory LaMarr, The LaMarr Firm, PLLC managing partner and founder, is representing families whose children received the assignment.

”I think that I’m a little disappointed that the decision by the school district wasn’t decisive,” he said.

He claims the three teachers’ resignations were an easy out, and there should have been more consequences to their actions.

“Allowing teachers to voluntarily resign and be paid, I think it’s a disgrace. I think it sends the wrong message,” he said.

Attorney LaMarr explained some students of color he represents are still dealing with long term effects from reading the assignment.

“They have nightmares. They have headaches. They’re constantly having crying spells. They are feeling less than,” he said. “Racism shows its face in a variety of different occupations, whether it be in policing, whether it be in medicine and whether it be in our educational systems.”

He said the healing process starts with accountability.

“We got a watered down version of justice today,” he said. “I definitely thank Sun Prairie for taking that position to try to take proactive steps to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. I think that’s important. But equally, I think it’s important to be decisive. "

Looking Ahead

Saron told NBC15 the district had been doing work to prevent something like this from happening, but said policies and procedures were circumvented. Over the past three years, the district has undergone thousands of hours of staff development specific to equity, according to Saron. He also said each school has an equity team.

Saron also said the district does encourage teachers to create supplementary instructional materials to personalize learning. He said with this incident, policies in place surrounding these issues were also circumvented.

“We’ve got policies for that, we’ve got a procedure for it, and we’ve also got a process and protocol in order to guide that decision making [and] all of our teacher leaders across the district to make sure that they’re serving kids in a personalized way,” he said. “And in this case, it was circumvented.”

Moving forward, Saron said the district is hiring a Director of Systemic Equity, and the social studies curriculum will be reviewed. He also said the district will seek an equity assessment and audit to find places where the district can do better, and engage in “community-wide healing discussions.”

“We need to apologize,” Saron said, adding that this incident “does not represent the district’s commitments to our students and our families, or our commitments to racial equity.”

“We will continue to accelerate our work on behalf of kids and families in order to co-create the environment where our families do feel welcome,” he said. “This instance of egregious behavior sent a shockwave across our system and we are committed to accelerating our work.”

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