Curriculum materials that are “offensive and insensitive.” How to respond?

A school district in Wisconsin responded swiftly and strongly when it learned that a 6th grade teacher was using materials in the class that were deemed offensive and insensitive to students of color. The district:

  1. Began an internal investigation;
  2. Put the teacher on administrative leave;
  3. Hired a law firm to investigate the matter;
  4. Issued a district-wide apology to families and staff;
  5. Released the results of the investigation when it was completed;
  6. Held mandatory professional training on harmful curriculum content;
  7. Reviewed the social studies curriculum;
  8. Partnered with an outside organization to provide healing sessions; and
  9. Collaborated on a district-wide equity assessment with the African American Parent Network.

What was this about?  Day One of Black History Month coincided with the day the 6th graders were beginning a lesson on ancient Mesopotamia. A teacher presented a lesson that featured prominent African Americans, such as Rosa Parks, Barack Obama, and Martin Luther King.  So far so good. But when the powerpoint slides moved on to Mesopotamia, they described Hammurabi and Hammurabi’s Code. 

The lesson concluded with an interactive assignment that asked students to apply the Code of Hammurabi to three scenarios. One of them was:

A slave stands before you. The slave has disrespected his master by telling him “You are not my master.”  How will you punish the slave?

Keep in mind the students were not being asked for the morally right response, or how such a scenario would play out under American standards in the 21st Century. No. The question was about Hammurabi’s Code and the correct answer was “he should be put to death.”

Students were upset.  Parents were livid. The matter went viral.  And then there was the lawsuit.

The court dismissed claims of “hostile environment,” for reasons that are well established in the law.  The court noted that a jury could conclude that the assignment was “offensive, insensitive, and justifiably upset students and their families.  But a hostile environment claim requires much more than a single upsetting episode.”

That’s particularly the case when the district responded as vigorously as it did. Moreover, no school administrator knew that these materials were being used in the classroom and they were not a part of the district’s approved curriculum. 

It’s Ervins v. Sun Prairie Area School District, decided by the federal court for the Western District of Wisconsin on July 1, 2022.  It’s cited at 2022 WL 2390180.


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Tomorrow: FCA sues California district