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‘Slavery is not a game’: Virginia school apologizes over Black History Month exercise


An elementary school in Nor­thern Virginia is apologizing for trivializing slavery after students played a game in a physical edu­cation class that required them to simulate moving through the Underground Railroad.

As part of recognizing Black History Month, students in the third, fourth and fifth grades at Madison’s Trust Elementary in Brambleton, Va., were given a lecture this month about the Underground Railroad. The students were then divided into groups of six and were responsible for overcoming a physical obstacle, such as moving through plastic hoops without knocking them over, said Wayde Byard, a spokesman for Loudoun County Public Schools.

“It trivializes something that is important,” Byard said. “There was an error made here. . . . Slavery is not a game.”

The game, first reported by the Loudoun Times-Mirror, was supposed to teach teamwork, communication and cooperation, according to the school system.

Byard said the students were not assigned the role of slaves. But Michelle Thomas, president of the NAACP’s Loudoun branch, said that aside from abolitionists, there could be no other role for students to play in an Underground Railroad simulation because African Americans used the network of trails and hiding places to escape slavery.

Thomas, a pastor, said parents of an African American student contacted her about the exercise after the child told his parents he played a runaway slave in class. Putting the boy in that situation, she said, “completely demeans him” and his ancestors, and makes light of the “terroristic in­stitution of slavery.”

“We don’t know how much of this is willful ignorance, how much of it is white privilege and how much of it is an intentional racist action or if it’s a combination of all three,” she said. “It’s unacceptable, and it undermines the community and the education that our children receive.”

Madison’s Trust Principal David Stewart sent a letter to parents Feb. 12 calling the lesson “culturally insensitive.”

“I extend my sincerest apology to our students and school community,” he wrote. “This is contradictory to our overall goals of empathy, affirmation, and creating a culturally responsive learning environment for all.”

Stewart said the school would create a team of parents and school employees to enhance cultural responsiveness.

Citing privacy laws, the school system declined to say whether anyone involved in developing the game faced discipline.

The episode at Madison’s Trust happened at a time when Loudoun is working to improve the experience of students of color in the classroom.

The Loudoun Freedom Center, an organization that aims to eliminate injustice, helped edit the elementary and middle school curriculum to more accurately reflect African American history, said Thomas, the center’s founder. The curriculum was updated with more sensitive language, such as replacing “slaves” with “enslaved” people.

She said Loudoun faces significant racial challenges but stressed the community is working to discuss and resolve them.

She pointed to a discussion about race that the center is hosting Saturday to reflect on the 400 years since the first documented Africans arrived in what would become Virginia.

Loudoun County Schools Superintendent Eric Williams acknowledged Friday that the episode at Madison’s Trust reflects deeper issues, including an achievement gap between white students and students of color.

The district is also concerned that students of color face higher discipline rates and are less likely to be enrolled in advanced programs, he said.

He highlighted steps the suburban district has taken, including providing training to combat unconscious bias, creating a position charged with specializing in equity and cultural competence and reviewing curriculum to ensure inclusiveness.

“The diversity in Loudoun County is one of our greatest strengths, but Loudoun County is also a place where equity has proven a challenge for many decades,” he said in a statement. “We are committed to working together to address these issues until they no longer exist in our schools or community.”

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