A Black mother filed a civil lawsuit last week against the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Board of Education, alleging that her daughter was left traumatized after a cotton picking field was created at her elementary school in 2017 to teach students about what life was like for enslaved people.
The mother, Rashunda Pitts, said that her daughter experienced “emotional distress” as a result of the project. The social justice teacher at Laurel Span School claimed that the project was designed to help students “gain a real-life experience as to what the African American slaves had endured,” according to the lawsuit.
Pitts alleges that the defendants discriminated against her daughter, who is now 14 years old and identified as S.W. in the complaint filed last Wednesday. The lawsuit also alleges negligence and seeks unspecified damages.
“She (S.W.) has uncontrollable anxiety attacks and has experienced bouts of depression when she thinks about the cotton picking project,” the lawsuit states.
Her daughter attended Laurel Span School in Hollywood in the fall of 2017. Pitts was dropping off her daughter one day when she saw a cotton field in front of the school. She then called the school’s front office and spoke with Assistant Principal Brian Wisniewski, who “enthusiastically informed her that the children in S.W.’s class were reading the autobiography of Frederick Douglass and that picking cotton was one of the experiences that he wrote about in the autobiography,” according to the lawsuit.
The assistant principal further explained that the cotton field was created so students could have a “real-life experience” with slavery by picking cotton themselves.
“Completely incensed with the idea that the school would have her daughter and other children pick cotton as a school exercise to identify with the real-life experience of African-American slaves, Ms. Pitts expressed her disappointment and hurt in regards to the culturally insensitive and incompetent project,”’ the lawsuit continued.
Pitts’ daughter said that her social justice teacher required students to pick cotton. Although she didn’t have to pick cotton herself, she had to watch other students do so while she tended to other crops. Pitts’ daughter said she was afraid to tell her mother about the project because she didn’t want “retaliation from teachers or bad grades,” the LA Times reported.
The lawsuit also explains that the school didn’t obtain permission from parents for the students to participate in the project, nor were they told about the project before its implementation.
The Los Angeles Unified School District released a statement, stating it regretted that an “instructional activity at Laurel Span School was construed as culturally insensitive,” according to the lawsuit. “When school administrators became aware of a parent’s concern about the cotton plant, they responded immediately by removing the plant,” the statement continued.
The lawsuit alleges that the school district’s response was “a lie to cover up discriminatory conduct.” The complaint also names the school’s then-principal and a social justice teacher as defendants. Since the project, Laurel Span School has shut down, and a new school, Laurel Cinematic, has been established.