WATERTOWN — A New York official concluded a probe into a mock slave auction last year at a local school without interviewing a primary witness: the teacher who came up with the idea that resulted in this controversy.
State Attorney General Letitia A. James wrote a letter dated July 31 to Watertown City School District Superintendent Patricia B. LaBarr declaring that her office finished its investigation into what occurred May 28, 2019, during a social studies class at North Elementary School. The Board of Education placed Patricia Bailey, who has worked at the district for more than three decades, on administrative leave after she had two Black students portray slaves while other students in the class bid on them. She eventually retired and never returned to the classroom.
According to a story published Aug. 10 by WWNY-TV/7 News, James’s letter states the following:
“The OAG investigation found that on May 28, 2019, during a fourth-grade social studies lesson unrelated to slavery, a teacher instructed an African American boy and girl to come to her desk at the front of the room. The teacher stated that they would learn about slavery and have a simulated slave auction in class. The teacher instructed that ‘in slave times,’ slaves would have their hands behind their backs and told the boy and the girl to place their hands accordingly, referring to them as brother and sister who would be shackled and split up upon sale. The teacher began calling out numbers and instructed other students in the room to start bidding on the two African American students at the front. The teacher then stated that slaves would take their ‘master’s’ surnames and instructed the African American student to refer to their winning bidders as ‘masters.’ The teacher further stated that the African American students should not try to escape because they would be chased down and violence would be done to them. The investigation did not reveal evidence suggesting that the teacher acted with express authorization, permission or approval from the school district.”
James states in her letter that the “investigation included interviews with parents of affected students who were present in the class and participated in the re-enactment, interviews with other parents of students in the district, review of documents produced by the district and review of publicly available information.” The letter also declares that “the district has contacted and interviewed the parents of the various students affected and took measures to counsel the affected students.”
Bailey disputed parts of James’s letter, the WWNY article reported. Her attorney issued a news release saying that “many of the claims in the letter are factually inaccurate. For example, she states that the lesson on May 28, 2019, was an introduction to the unit plan on slavery, although the letter agreement claims the lesson that day was unrelated to slavery. She also never asked any student to refer to another student as ‘master,’ as claimed in the letter agreement. She did explain to the students that slaves would lose their name and would take the name of the slave owner and were often required to call them ‘master,’ which is factually accurate.”
As part of her attorney’s statement, Bailey revealed the biggest mystery of this entire incident: “I’m surprised I was never contacted by the OAG or the Board of Education to get the facts straight. They concluded their investigation without talking to me or even asking to talk to me. … I am heartbroken to read these distortions of the truth, which disparage me and have discredited my career in this process.”
Frankly, the details that Bailey identified as inaccurate aren’t really the ones that tarnished her reputation. What doomed her career was the fact that she called on two Black students to pretend to be slaves.
If some of the assertions in James’s letter are false, then Bailey raised a valid point. But the true damage to her credibility as a teacher occurred because she devised this horrendous activity.
So it’s perplexing that neither James’s office nor the Board of Education believed Bailey’s input would in some way benefit the investigation. Why in the world would she subject two fourth-graders to this kind of treatment? How did she expect them to react?
These questions must be addressed. We need to understand why an experienced educator would be comfortable with creating something so potentially hurtful to her students.
The AG’s office is requiring the School District to hire or designate a chief diversity officer, revise and update its Code of Conduct and identify a third-party diversity consultant, among other measures. There are no surprises here, although time will tell if these steps make any difference.
But what’s really needed is a diagnosis of why some teachers feel compelled to enact slave auctions (the incident at North Elementary School certainly isn’t the first one of these to occur and likely won’t be the last). If authorities want to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again, they need to know what prompted it in the first place.
And this means that teachers be interviewed on why they organized such activities, something that wasn’t done in this case.
This is a serious oversight on James’s part.
How does she expect conditions to change when she ignores the most crucial information available?
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to email@example.com.