Tennessee school apologizes after assignment told students to pretend families own slaves

Amelia Ferrell Knisely

NASHVILLE – A Tennessee school district is apologizing for a homework assignment that asked students to pretend their families own slaves.

The hand-written assignment, which touched on issues of slavery, immigration and child labor, was given out Wednesday in an eighth grade social studies class at Sunset Middle School, about 20 miles from Nashville.

One box on the homework sheet reads, "Your family owns slaves. Create a list of expectations for your family's slaves."

Dan Fountain, whose 13-year-old sister was assigned the homework, said the teacher did not explain the assignment or note that it contained sensitive topics of race and immigration.

"It initially made me angry. The fact that my sister is one of a couple of black kids at her school, I can't let things like this sit around and slide," Fountain, who graduated from high school four years ago, said. "The way the questions were phrased and laid out had no academic merit. 

"I don't like the aspect that my sister is describing how she would be treated as a slave. It doesn't benefit anyone."

The student body at Sunset Middle School, a part of Williamson County Schools, is 70 percent white, according to the Tennessee Department of Education.

The homework, which Fountain shared on Twitter, also asked students to write a poem or song lyrics that "compare and contrast the lives of plantation owners and their slave population" and "create a political cartoon depicting immigrant labor in the United States."

"There's no sense in depicting immigrants in this way," Fountain continued. "You are essentially letting children run wild with their conscious or unconscious bias of other people."

More: Virginia school apologizes for 'insensitive' Underground Railroad activity

More: Virginia's first lady handed cotton to African-American students during tour, complaint says

School issues apology

The homework was assigned by Sunset Middle teachers Susan Hooper and Kim Best.

The pair apologized to students and families in a statement: "This week, we gave our students an assignment we recognize was inappropriate. We have pulled the assignment, and no grade will be given. We have and will be apologizing to our students. It was never our intention to hurt any of our students. The assignment was insensitive, and it did not promote Sunset Middle's goal of an inclusive environment.  Please accept our sincere apologies."

Sunset Middle School Principal Tim Brown also apologized Thursday, and said he was remorseful that the situation had occurred.

"I recognize this assignment was inappropriate, and steps are being taken to rectify this situation," Brown said in an email. "I will continue to have meaningful conversations with my faculty around creating assignments that consider perspectives from all backgrounds."

WCS Superintendent Mike Looney issued an apology via email that said, in part, "Please accept my sincere apology for this gross error in judgement from WCS personnel. We have been providing professional training to our staff members on cultural awareness this year, but I admit that we have more work to do in this area."

Follow Amelia Ferrell Knisely on Twitter: @ameliaknisely

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee  school apologizes after assignment told students to pretend families own slaves