WOOD RIVER JCT. — Some Chariho parents, members of the School Committee and a state senator are reacting to a video on racism by The Atlantic magazine, titled “Trump and the Power of Whiteness,” that was shown in November to an eighth-grade class at the middle school. Several committee members applauded the inclusion of the video in the class, while others, including Sen. Elaine Morgan, R-Hopkinton and Richmond, described it as radical and inappropriate.
“This is a vile video that was shown to 8th grade students,” Morgan said in a written statement to The Sun. “This video gives these children the impression that if their parents voted for Trump in the elections that they were white supremacist and racist. Children are also being bullied by their peers if they are Republican or hold Republican values. In this video the word Niger [sic] is used and is not acceptable. This does not unite people it only causes a bigger divide.”
Morgan also sent an angry letter, dated Nov. 27, to School Committee members. The name of the teacher in question, which has not been released, was redacted from her letter.
“It has come to my attention that [the teacher] as part of preparing her students to study the Holocaust, has the students studying prejudice. In addition to wondering what studying the Holocaust has to do with the study of English, I was incensed to learn that she showed the students a video called ‘Trump and the Power of Whiteness.’ If the title alone of the video is not appalling enough, the subject matter is even more so,” she wrote.
At their meeting Tuesday, members of the School Committee debated whether the video should have been shown to the class. The item was on the agenda at the request of Richmond member Clay Johnson.
“I’m not sure how a reasonable person could say that this video was appropriate in an English class,” he said. “Did everyone on the committee see the video? Is that a video we’re comfortable playing here?”
Superintendent of Schools Barry Ricci explained that the video had been shown to a single class of 23 students in the context of instruction about events in Charlottesville, Va., the site of a white supremacist march last August. He told the committee that contrary to Morgan’s letter, the lesson had not been about the Holocaust, which is taught at another time.
“You were in receipt of a letter from Senator Morgan advising you that she had received contacts from parents who were outraged that the video called ‘Trump and the Power of Whiteness’ was shown,” he said. “I don’t know who those parents were, because they were not referred to me or to the principal. When the letter was received, I spoke to Principal [Gregory] Zenion and Assistant Principal [Mary Beth] Florenz and we certainly looked into the matter and determined that the letter from Senator Morgan contained a number of inaccurate statements.”
Ricci explained that Florenz had spoken with the teacher and had looked at lesson plans and that she had met with the teacher and her union representative. Ricci also asked Zenion to hold a focus group with some of the students in the class to determine how they felt about the video.
Ricci agreed that the video was inflammatory, but he argued that students should not be shielded from controversial topics.
“I don’t think there was any ill intent,” he said. “I don’t think any of the allegations in the letter are actually grounded in fact, and the best evidence I have of that is the conversation with students, because they are the recipients of the information in the teaching.”
Ricci conceded that more attention should be given to providing students with additional context when controversial topics are taught.
“When a teacher or anyone chooses to go down that road of teaching a controversial issue, there is a need for, probably, a greater attempt to plan and deliver in a very sensitive manner. I think there’s a correlation between the degree of controversy and the amount of planning that has to go into that kind of a lesson.”
Members were divided on whether it had been appropriate to show the video to eighth-graders.
Charlestown member Donna Chambers applauded the decision to expose students to controversy.
“I believe that it was very courageous of this teacher to address and use the content that was so controversial that it stimulated the thinking of the children,” she said. “I think that we need to do more of that.”
Murat Dymov of Richmond agreed that teachers should not be censored, but he said he wanted a clear policy regarding the use of materials in classrooms.
“I believe it is important that we put some guidelines as to the general scope of the material that teachers do use, and I fully expect them to continue to use external sources in their teaching of students,” he said.
Committee Chair Sylvia Stanley and Hopkinton member Georgia Ure said they had received calls from parents about the video.
Stanley questioned the need to involve a state legislator without first trying to resolve the issue with school administrators.
“If they’d been told there’s a procedure to go through, then it would not have been necessary to write us all the letter and leave the superintendent out,” she said. “I don’t know of any parents who feel that if something happens in a classroom, the first thing they need to do is go to their senator.”
‘It’s Impossible to Imagine Trump Without the Force of Whiteness’ from Tynesha Foreman on Vimeo.