Fact check: Missouri students were given math assignment about Maya Angelou's sexual abuse, sex work

The claim: Students at a public school in Missouri were given a math assignment referencing Maya Angelou’s sexual abuse and sex work

A school district in Missouri drew wide condemnation online after social media users shared posts of a math problem that referenced author and poet Maya Angelou’s sexual abuse and sex work.

“CRAP BEING TAUGHT (TO) OUR KIDS – SICK!” a Facebook user wrote April 18 in a post that was shared more than 250 times in two days. Other versions of the image racked up thousands of additional shares across Facebook and Twitter.

The image shows two algebra problems attached to trivia questions based on Angelou’s life.

The first question asks students to fill in the blank to the following prompt: “Angelou was sexually abused by her mother’s ______ at age 8, which shaped her career choices and motivation for writing.” The second says, “Trying to support her son as a single mother, she worked as a pimp, prostitute and ______.”

This was a real assignment given to high schoolers in the Lincoln County R-III School District in Missouri. The full image of the assignment shows additional questions about Angelou’s hometown and professorial career at Wake Forest University, among other topics.

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It's not the first time these questions have spurred controversy.

USA TODAY was unable to reach users who shared the claim for comment.

Maya Angelou was a poet and essayist who died in 2014.
Maya Angelou was a poet and essayist who died in 2014.

District says assignment, letter are legitimate

The assignment was given to about 60 ninth grade students during the week of Feb. 14-18, the district’s community relations director, Audrey Henebry, wrote in an email to USA TODAY.

It was taken from teacherspayteachers.com, a website where educators across the world can buy and sell instructional material from each other. The intent for the assignment was to “provide cross-curricular content,” Henebry said.

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Henebry confirmed the validity of a Feb. 22 letter from district Superintendent Mark Penny circulating online. She said Kelly Briscoe, principal of the Ninth Grade Center, reached out to families of students at the school who received the assignment.

Penny's letter said the worksheet’s content “does not align with the beliefs or mission” of the district and was “not in line with approved curriculum.” He said the assignment had been removed from the course and steps were being taken “to ensure that it is not used in the future.”

Loretta Stevens, a spokesperson for Teachers Pay Teachers, wrote in an email to USA TODAY that the content in the assignment was “inappropriate and does not belong in classrooms or on our platform.”

The organization has a policy that prohibits resources that “trivialize traumatic experiences, or disrespect, discriminate, or have the effect of marginalizing others,” she said.

Stevens said the questions were removed from the worksheet in 2017 and the resource is no longer available on the platform.

The Missouri district's actions surfaced when a Twitter user shared an image of the worksheet in February.

The same worksheet stirred controversy after being used by a Pennsylvania high school district in 2017 and a Florida middle school in 2015, according to The Associated Press.

Our rating: True

Based on our research, we rate TRUE the claim that a public school in Missouri assigned math problems that reference Angelou’s sexual abuse and sex work. The school district said the assignment was taken from an online platform for educators and has been removed from the course.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Homework referenced Maya Angelou's sexual abuse, sex work