“It was one of those surreal moments when you ask yourself if you’re understanding reality correctly,” said Parker, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. “They sent my daughter home a slave.”
For much of the week since, Parker, whose academic work focuses on issues of racial and mental-health bias, has been pressing school officials about the seriousness of what happened just after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in Hamden, Conn., about five miles from the Yale campus. She has voiced outrage and is calling for greater accountability in how racial incidents are handled.
The class play at West Woods Elementary School was canceled after her complaint, and Hamden school officials said the teacher was placed on leave with pay Tuesday while the matter is investigated by the school system.
“It’s not an approved play, and it’s not part of our curriculum,” Hamden Superintendent Jody Ian Goeler said in an interview. He said teachers make hundreds of decisions a day, and this one was “a bad decision.”
The skit was written nearly 20 years ago, as part of a Scholastic book, he said, describing it as “dated” and not in line with “today’s values and norms.”
“Everything from the choice of the play to the parts that were assigned — to me, it’s all problematic,” he said. “When we make choices about what to use in the classroom, we have to think things through.”
The episode comes as one in a string of school incidents nationally involving slave portrayals in recent years.
Last month, a D.C. school — Lafayette Elementary — wrote a letter to parents saying it was wrong to ask fifth-grade students take part in a simulation of enslavement as part of a lesson on slavery.
In New York, the state’s attorney general found that a teacher at a private Lutheran school held mock “slave auctions” for two fifth-grade classes — reenactments that had “a profoundly negative effect” on students, especially African Americans.
In Connecticut, Parker is speaking out. It was not just that two fifth-graders of color had parts as slaves, she said, but that she felt the teacher and principal did not fully understand the problem and how to address it when she brought it to their attention.
“People of different cultures are going to make mistakes,” she said. “Mistakes are fine as long as we can face them head on.”
According to Parker, the teacher explained that she had warned the class of potentially offensive material and said children were told they could say “ouch” if they felt sad, offended or hurt.
“The children were supposed to have the insight to object,” Parker said.
Parker said the teacher also pointed out that the girl had volunteered for the role — which Parker asserted is beside the point.
“No child should have the thought, ‘Oh, I think I’d make a great slave,’ ” she said.
Parker and her husband, Joshua, went to see the principal, and he described the play as an unfortunate choice but said the teacher had the best of intentions, according to Parker. Neither the teacher nor the principal responded immediately to requests for comment.
The first apology, Parker said, came Friday from the 5,400-student school system’s director of social studies and assistant superintendent. They said the skit was wrong and not part of the system’s curriculum, Parker said.
Parker said she does not support the teacher being put on leave, arguing that it seems like scapegoating as the issue has come to public light. Instead, she called for the dismissal of the principal and pointed to Hamden’s system of accountability as “flawed and failed.”
Goeler, the superintendent, said the principal has the support of the school system and did not choose or review the play. “He is fully committed to the work of making sure his school is a safe and welcoming school for all students,” he said Wednesday.
Goeler said he believes in accountability and considers the mistake “a learning moment.” Equity is a priority in the diverse school system, where students of color represent more than 60 percent of enrollment, he said.
Implicit-bias training is conducted across the school system, he said.
In a Jan. 26 email, school board Chair M. Arturo Perez-Cabello said the incident “shows our district needs to continue working on developing curriculum that is culturally sensitive.” He encouraged Parker to attend the board’s equity committee.
Parker, who said her family moved to Hamden only five months ago, spoke at the Tuesday equity meeting and has begun working with the Greater New Haven NAACP.
Dori Dumas, president of the NAACP branch, called the classroom play “hard to believe” and said the episode has heightened an ongoing concern about how African American history is taught.
“We support teaching it, but utilizing well-researched information for the appropriate age group,” she said. Teacher training and sensitivity are vital, she said.
Parker noted that when she met with Hamden’s social studies director, she was shown other learning materials that addressed slavery. But she found the picture that accompanied the material racist, she said: a well-dressed white slave owner with a whip, overseeing two black men presented with slanted foreheads, and oversize noses and lips.
In August, The Washington Post published articles about the obstacles and failures of teaching about slavery in American schools. Many teachers said they felt ill-prepared to teach the topic, and textbooks rarely do more than skim the surface.
In Connecticut, Parker said she read the skit — “A Triangle of Trade, The Colonial Slave Trade” — with bewilderment, questioning what could be learned.
She recalled that her biracial daughter — a spelling bee champ and science fair winner who plays three musical instruments — told her about the play after breakfast one day, proud at first to participate.
She grew upset as she saw that her mother did not share her joy, Parker said, and cried.
“A part of my heart and her innocence shattered,” Parker said.