Teacher Binds Students in Lesson on Slavery

A white teacher taped together the hands and feet of two 13-year-old black female students and then ordered them to climb underneath a desk as a “demonstration” while she taught a lesson on slavery. At least one of the two girls did not volunteer for the demonstration, cried during it, and was deeply traumatized by the experience.  The teacher still has her job, and even better commentators are referring to Eileen Bernstein’s actions as “misguided” rather than racist and abusive.

Christine Shand says it was a terrible experience for her daughter, Gaby, descended, like most Jamaicans, from slaves.

“She burst into tears, she was crying and she was horrified,” Shand told CBS 2 HD.

In a social studies class at Haverstraw Middle School, teacher Eileen Bernstein chose Gaby and another girl for a demonstration of conditions on ships that carried slaves out of Africa.

One African-American student raised her hand to volunteer for the demonstration. Gaby did not volunteer, but was chosen anyway.

“She taped their hands together, taped their feet together, and she had them crawl under the desk as if they were on a slave ship,” her mother told CBS 2.

Mrs. Shand said Gaby was traumatized. She questions the teacher’s judgment.

“There are other ways to demonstrate slavery. There’s movies, you don’t actually have to grab two kids and like put shackles on them,” she said.

Wilbur Aldridge, the regional NAACP director, went with the Shands Thursday to meet Bernstein.

“She said she apologized for causing any problems for the child, but she was not apologizing for using that simulation during the class,” Aldridge said.

But Principal Avis Shelby apologized, calling the slave ship demonstration a “bad decision.”

“And we have things in place to make sure it doesn’t occur again,” Shelby added.

Actually, it was a little bit more than a “bad decision.”  It was a horrible thing to do to a child, and saying “but oh, I was teaching about slavery so of course I had to use black students” doesn’t excuse the racism.  There’s a reason that Bernstein felt that it was perfectly okay to bind those students and humiliate and traumatize them in front of their peers.  There’s a reason that she’s not sorry.  And there’s a reason why she still has her job.

Worse, the impression is given that Gaby will remain in the classroom with Bernstein.  Of course, with Bernstein still in a job and no statement on whether or not she has even been reprimanded, the other option is to remove Gaby from the classroom as though she is the one who has done something wrong here.  Nice situation.

School is supposed to be as safe a place as possible for students.  And teachers are the last people who should ever make students feel unsafe in a place where they are supposed to be learning.

Renee has a really excellent post on the matter. Go check it out.  She also shares the contact details of the school’s principle, and has written a letter asking him to treat this situation with the seriousness it deserves. I join her in encouraging you to do the same.

cross-posted at Feministe

0 thoughts on “Teacher Binds Students in Lesson on Slavery

  1. SunlessNick

    I’m willing to count “misguided” in with the things this decision was, because I do figure the teacher was genuinely trying to demonstrate the evils of slavery. But “misguided” and “bad decision” don’t begin to cover it.

    First, as a commentator called Karak said at Renee’s post: how does staring at two tied up black girls tell white students what it was like to be a slave? The lesson only makes sense in its own terms if all the students (or at least all who volunteered, or a large proportion, and certainly not just the black ones) suffer this.

    Second of course, it’s flat out child-abuse, so I what I said in the previous paragraph would be no better than what this teacher did. And that’s enough that the teacher should be fired even without the racial aspect.

    Third, I’d actually say “but oh, I was teaching about slavery so of course I had to use black students” (even one who didn’t volunteer) far from excusing any racism, demonstrates it. Why else could this teacher conclude that only those already more likely to be familiar and traumatised by this subject should be subjected to physical showings of it?

    Fourth, I can’t help wondering if doing this only to black girls carries a subtext of “Look how bad your ancestors had it, not shut up about today’s trivial racism.”

    The phrase “bad decision” is generally used to mean foolish or stupid. But “bad” means many more things than that – ineffective, morally wrong, callous, destructive – and this one hits all of those.

    And it strike me as arrogant, wanting to be next Jane Elliot.

  2. Rachel S.

    Um… kay, that’s abuse. Even if all involved were adults, if someone is crying when you tie them up (especially if they didn’t volunteer for it!) it’s abusive, and can be construed as being criminal. This teacher took advantage of her power over those girls, and ignored the one who was obviously not wanting to participate in this “demonstration” (let’s call it what it is: a scene).

    Now, if this teacher were found to be tying up adults in her free time, she would be immediately discharged because parents would be outraged that a pervert was teaching at their school — but over this she doesn’t even get reprimanded? No administrative leave? Nothing? Come on. Even as someone who is into bondage (and totally would have volunteered to be tied up), this is completely unacceptable to me. What the fuck?

  3. Kristin

    Yep, agreed with the commenters here. I am shocked and horrified that people are suggesting that the teacher should be afforded “the benefit of the doubt” over at Feministe.

  4. Thealogian

    Racist? yep. Abusive? yep.

    I work in education policy, and I teach at a University–there’s something called “best practices” and trying a crying girl up ain’t any where near “best practices” let alone ethical conduct. Jesus, just wait, I bet this lady gets transferred to the alternative school or day treatment. So often the worst of the worst go into the alternative education programs or mental health day treatment education programs…because those kids of “throw-away”‘s. I work on behalf of at-risk youth and I’ve been part of monitoring visits of these schools and education programs and jewels like Ms. Bernstein are often “not fired” by being transferred to those types of schools. Which means that she’ll be in contact with more children of color (who are disproportionately placed in alt programs DUE to racism), those that come from poor or dysfunctional families, and those with mental health problems.

    I’m not trying to rant on my personal headache and make it relevant, I swear. After working in education policy, you start to get a sense of how these things “work out.” And the solution to overt racism in a standard school is often allow less publicized racism to worsen in the alt schools.

    Okay, off of that bit of the response and onto those who want to give the benefit of the doubt.

    Here’s my thing, perhaps she was trying to illustrate the horrors of slavery. She’s against slavery, great.

    But, she obviously hasn’t done much self-reflection. I bet she doesn’t even acknowledge that as a human being living in a racist society, she’s racist. I mean, I can be racist. Much of my deep self-reflection started when my biracial niece was born. I started to think, privately and unsaid, about hair. What her hair would be like and I had to admit that I hoped it wouldn’t be as curly as most African American women’s hair because I knew how hard it was to “manage” (by “manage” I meant caucasianize–I had a roommate my freshman year in college whose hair I helped straighten with a perm and another friend works in a very conservative field and “needs” to get her hair done weekly in order to maintain her white hairdo). Anyway, that really hit me in the gut. I wanted my niece to have non-kinky hair. I realized, even though I was an anthropology major, traveled the world, did aid work, was raised Unitarian Universalist in the San Francisco Bay Area–I realized I was a racist! Anyway, we all are, but we need to confront and challenges ourselves as a practice–explaining or discovering racism is not something that black people or brown people are put on earth to explain to white people. I need to take responsibility myself. So, I try. But this lady? She thinks that disapproving of slavery means that she’s not a racist. Even if you (Ms. Bernstein) hadn’t done such a crazy, abusive thing as this “lesson” YOU ARE A RACIST AND YOU NEED TO DEAL.

  5. Renee

    Thanks Cara for posting this story. Please take a moment to contact the principle and let the administration know just wrong this is. We already know that in districts that still allow corporal punishments black girls are the most likely to be centered out. If our children are harmed in this way by the education system they will begin to associate learning with pain which is a detriment to their future.
    Thanks again Cara, this story really hit me on a personal level, both as a WOC and a mother of two black children.


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