PHOTO: Former president of the Maury County chapter of the NAACP, Paco Havard, applauds Holly Thompson’s son for his bravery in speaking out. / Photo by Alexander Willis
By ALEXANDER WILLIS
Maury County residents and representatives from the Maury County School District all joined together at a small church in Columbia Thursday night following the aftermath of a controversial reading assignment that had tasked middle school students with, among other things, coming up with ideas of how to punish slaves.
In a very similar vein to an incident at Sunset Middle School in Brentwood, a teacher at Whitthorne Middle School in Columbia had issued an assignment that tasked students with answering questions as if they were slave owners.
In photographs taken from inside the school, large sheets of paper were seen plastered on the walls, with questions such as: “would you rather be a slave or be shot and killed,” and “if you are a slave owner and one of your slaves is doing nothing what should the punishment be?” Some of the answers to the latter question, which appear to be written by students, included “whip him” and “kill him.”
While the school district issued a response last week, saying that the particular lesson had been eliminated from the teacher’s curriculum, and that the school’s principal, Lance Evans, had personally spoken with the teacher, some residents wanted answers, as well as assurance that such an incident would not repeat itself.
Enter Serreta Bosnon, a Columbia resident for over 20 years. While her children have been out of Maury County schools for years, Bosnon said it was god’s word that had compelled her to organize a meeting between the community and representatives of the school district.
Bosnon said that an angry mob wouldn’t solve anything, and that the issue of any racial insensitivity would best be solved through a better understanding and continued discussions.
Photo by Alexander Willis
At around 6 p.m., residents began pouring into the New Life Church of God on 18th Street in Columbia. Maury County schools Assistant Superintendent Rod Woodard accepted an invitation to attend, as did school board member Natasha Hopkins.
Additionally, former president of the Maury County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Paco Havard, also joined the community meeting.
And lastly, Holly Thompson, the mother of a child who was asked to partake in the controversial assignment, was also present, along with her son.
Thompson said that her son had been harassed by other students since news of the original incident broke, and that he had been out of school for the past few days due to feeling ill.
Thompson’s son said that some of his fellow students were angry with him for sharing what had been taught in school, saying that he would cause the teacher who issued the assignment to lose her job.
Those at the church praised Thompson’s son for his courage, consoling in him that he had done the right thing.
During the meeting, residents were quick to ask how such an assignment could have been assigned, and what measures would be taken to see that such an incident would not repeat itself.
Assistant Superintendent Woodard called the assignment “inappropriate,” but said that through the school district’s investigation, they did not believe there to be any malintent on the teacher’s part. To illustrate his point, Woodard likened the situation to himself, a member of the African American community, teaching a lesson about the Holocaust, where without actually being a member of the affected community, might not have the personal life experience to accurately teach such a sensitive topic.
Woodard continued by arguing the best solution to be more transparency, discussions and learning – not a mob, and invited all concerned parents to attend school board meetings in the future and share their thoughts and concerns.
Havard with the NAACP said that the key to solving the issue was to find the root cause of the problem, and to go from there.
“When something like this happens, it’s best that you get together and find out what the problem is, you got to get to the root cause of the problem,” Havard said. “It might have been just a misunderstanding, but then it might have been intent… it depends on the person and the situation, but seek first to get an understanding, and then through that, you know which way you have to proceed.”
Havard said that through the discussion, it was still unclear as to the intent of the teacher, but that better preparation and communication could help avoid such an incident in the future.
“Preparation is the key,” Havard said. “If she would have bounced it off a person of color and said ‘what about this, this is what I’m thinking about teaching, what do you think?’ Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Learn all about tolerance, because everybody doesn’t look at everything the same way; fraternal twins come out the same hole, but they don’t look at the same thing the same way. You have to ask that question, because I don’t know what you’re thinking until you talk to me.”
Towards the end of the meeting, both representatives of the school district and residents joined hands, praying for unity and understanding in their community, while also saying a prayer for Thompson’s son.
After the meeting, Woodard applauded the direction the discussion went, lauding those in attendance for focusing more on solutions rather than condemnation.
“We’re at the point now where we need to begin thinking about solutions, and trying to heal,” Woodard said. “I’m very appreciative of the approach that I heard from the pastor of this church and from his congregation about understanding that there was an error, and that we cannot condemn a person for an error, but that we need to think about how we’ll address this matter differently in the future. I heard some great comments around how we address sensitive matters like these going forward; I heard some good solutions, and I heard some very real emotions tonight that needed to be heard. I’m thankful for the opportunity to hear from the community regarding the incident.”
When asked about what course of action the school district may take following the incident, Woodard said he was unable to comment on any disciplinary actions, but that the incident “will force ongoing conversations with our staff on how we look at future training, future lessons, and how we choose to address certain topics of a sensitive nature like this.”