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November 10, 2010

WCS sued over book used in slavery lesson

STERLING HEIGHTS — A picture book used at a Warren Consolidated elementary school during a lesson about slavery in America has spurred a Macomb County Circuit Court civil suit alleging discrimination and seeking damages.

Jamey Petree, the parent of a one-time student at Black Elementary School in Sterling Heights, filed the suit via Novi-based attorney Scott E. Combs earlier this month, alleging violation of the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act and infliction of “severe emotional distress” associated with use of the materials in the classroom.

The student, a minor also is listed as a plaintiff, apparently no longer attends the district.

The plaintiff claims that a fifth-grade teacher at Black read aloud excerpts from the book “From Slaveship to Freedom Road,” by Julius Lester, including portions that contained repeated references to racial slurs, in January of this year.

“Step right up! New shipment of n-----s just in,” one passage, as quoted in court documents, reads. “These n-----s are black as Satan’s thoughts, which means it don’t matter how hot the sun gets, (they) will work like it’s the cool of the day. However, they’re so black, it’s hard to see them in the dark. But don’t worry. At night they bring out their banjos and drums. If you can’t see ‘em, in the dark, you’ll sure hear them.”

The passage appears to chronicle the arrival of slaves via ship and their subsequent sale to plantation owners.

The lawsuit asserts that the usage of the book resulted in “intentional infliction of emotional distress” and “racial discrimination and harassment … specifically toward plaintiff because she is an African-American female.”

It goes on to claim that incorporation of such materials into the classroom “affected the conditions of learning duties and the advantages of (the plaintiff’s) further education, and seriously affected her mental and emotional wellbeing, past, present and future.”

“Defendants’ actions were extreme and outrageous, done intentionally and/or recklessly,” the suit concludes, requesting compensatory damages and exemplary damages in excess of $25,000.

Combs could not be immediately reached for comment on the case.

On its website, children’s book publisher and distributor Scholastic calls “From Slaveship to Freedom Road” an “innovative picture book for older children” that pairs text by Lester with 24 paintings by Rod Brown to “reenact the 250-year journey from the first slave ships taking Africans forcibly from their homes to the Civil War and emancipation.”

On a site Lester purportedly maintains himself, the author, who is black, calls the text used “personal and emotional” and explains that while books typically entail an illustrator creating images to complement the words, the process was flipped in this case.

Lester indicates that he’s published 43 books and more than 200 essays and reviews.

The book reportedly has garnered a number of accolades, including being named among the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults, the Booklist Youth Editors’ Choices and the International Reading Association’s Teachers’ Choices.

Scholastic pegs the recommended age level of readers at 10 to 15 years old.

WCS spokesman Robert Freehan said Nov. 10 that he could not comment specifically on the lawsuit because the district had not yet received a copy. However, in general, “books that are used in the classroom are reviewed; it’s a typical procedure,” he said.

In most cases, committees comprising media specialists and/or teachers evaluate the materials ahead of time, and they often glean recommendations from national reviewing boards and take into account prestigious awards books may have received, he said.

For particularly sensitive topics, such as sex education, parent groups may be involved in the process, he added.

Freehan emphasized that he wasn’t familiar with the book named in the latest lawsuit, and therefore could not say how long it’s been used at Black or whether it’s employed elsewhere in the district.

But he said finding appropriate materials that accurately reflect history while recognizing communities’ increasing diversity, that are “sensitive, yet portray reality,” is a difficulty many school districts encounter.

“We’re trying to find materials that kids can relate to and also present information from a historical standpoint,” he said. “That’s a struggle that school districts have, that if they present historical information, there might be aspects of that information that people might be offended by.”