A Black parent filed a civil rights lawsuit last week against the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Board of Education, saying that a cotton field was set up at an elementary school in 2017 that was intended to teach students about the experiences of slaves.
Rashunda Pitts said her 14-year-old daughter, who is referred to as "S.W." in the lawsuit, experienced emotional distress as a result of the project at Laurel Span School that her social justice teacher said was to help students "gain a real-life experience as to what the African American slaves had endured." The suit also names the school's then-principal and social justice teacher as defendants. Since the project, Laurel Span School was closed, and a new school — Laurel Cinematic Arts Creative Tech Magnet — was created in its place.
Pitts said that in September 2017, she noticed her daughter had become "very quiet and reserved" when she used to "vibrantly share her day with her mother," the lawsuit states.
One day, as Pitts was dropping off her daughter on campus, she saw a cotton field in front of the school and called the office to speak with the school's principal, Amy Diaz, who was unavailable, according to the lawsuit. Pitts spoke with Assistant Principal Brian Wisniewski, who explained that S.W.'s class was reading Frederick Douglass' autobiography and that the cotton field was created so students could have a "real life experience" of slavery, the lawsuit says.
After Pitts expressed her disappointment with the project, Wisniewski agreed and said the school's principal would reach out to Pitts, the lawsuit states. Diaz listened to Pitts' request for the cotton field to be taken down in 24 hours but said that the school couldn't accommodate such a quick turnaround, saying it could aim for the end of the week or the following week, but couldn't make any promises, according to the lawsuit.
Wisniewski and Diaz didn't immediately return requests for comment. An LAUSD spokesperson said the district didn't comment on ongoing or pending litigation.
Pitts' daughter also said that her social justice teacher required students to "pick cotton" and that she herself was not forced to do so but had to watch other students complete the project while she cared for other crops in the garden, according to the lawsuit.
Pitts' daughter said she was afraid to tell her about the project because she didn't want retaliation from teachers or bad grades. The school didn't obtain permission from parents in order for their students to participate in the project nor were they informed about the project's existence, the suit alleges.
The school district later released a statement to a reporter stating that it regrets "that an instructional activity in the garden at Laurel School was construed as culturally insensitive," according to the lawsuit.
"Tending to the garden where a variety of fruits, vegetables and other plants grow is a school-wide tradition that has been in place for years and has never been used as a tool to re-enact historical events," according to the statement. "When school administrators became aware of a parent’s concern about the cotton plant, they responded immediately by removing the plant."
Pitts alleges that the district lied to cover up its conduct and that the statement "directly contradicts" the explanation that was given to her by the school's assistant principal about the project. As a result, Pitts said her daughter was discriminated against on the basis of her race.
“S.W. has suffered extreme emotional distress," the lawsuit states. "She has uncontrollable anxiety attacks and has experiences bouts of depression when she thinks about the Cotton Picking Project."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.