‘We apologize for a situation that made students feel emotionally unsafe’: Investigation complete into Spokane school cotton-picking lesson

Sacajawea middle school
Copyright 4 News Now

SPOKANE, Wash – A third-party investigator has completed her report about accusations of racism at Spokane’s Sacajawea Middle School.

The investigator was brought to investigate claims of a racist lesson brought forth by two Black twins. The claims, first reported by 4 News Now’s Nia Wong, alleged that the teacher singled out the girls for a lesson on cotton-picking because they were Black. The girls’ mother also said that when she called to complain, the principal offered to “segregate” the girls from the rest of the class.

PAST COVERAGE: Black Spokane teens say they were subjected to cotton-picking lesson in class

A third-party report was completed July 7.

In the report, the investigator says the girls transferred to Sacajawea after experiencing “racial hostility” at their previous school in Cheney. The students were on a hybrid A/B schedule due to the pandemic and were assigned to Cindy Schwartzenberger’s 5th period Social Studies class. The investigation says girls both really liked their teacher and that the class was actually “really fun.”

Allegations against Sacajawea Teacher

On Monday, May 3, the girls said Mrs. Schwartenzberger told the students to clean off their desk because they were going to do a project on “cotton picking.” Whoever cleaned the cotton the fastest would win a prize. All of the students were assigned to do the project.

As they were doing the project, the girls said another student said “I’d hate to be a slave. I hate to do this. This is horrible.” One of the girls said when the teacher asked a boy in the class what he would do if he had to do that all of your life, the boy responded “I’d quit. I’d find other ways to do it. I’d kill myself.”

That made one of the girls so mad, she said she couldn’t even hear. But, neither girl told the teacher or other students how they were feeling.

After the contest was over, the teacher discussed the consequences for slaves if they didn’t properly clean the cotton, telling them “slaves would get whipped if they left pieces in it.” The bell rang shortly after and the girls went on to their 6th period classes without discussing what happened. On the bus after school, they were both still upset and decided to tell their mom when they got home.

When he was told about what happened, the girls’ mother says the principal Taylor Skidmore said “Mrs. Schwartzenberger was the most kindest, gentlest teacher they have and she would never do this.” She says he defended the teacher; she believed not enough was being done to keep her children safe.

The girls’ mother says Skidmore called her back a few minutes later and said he would “segregate them into a room by themselves so they wouldn’t have to be around a white teacher.” She told the investigator she “dropped a few f-bombs” and hung up on him.

The investigator reviewed the other students in the class that day and interviewed five of the seven who were there. According to the report, the students were White, Latin/x and Asian-American/Pacific Islander. There were two other Black students in the class, but they were not there the day of the cotton activity.

All five of the students interviewed said the lesson that day was about the invention of the cotton gin and what slaves experienced. All of the students interviewed said the exercise of picking cotton was not presented as an idea of what it was like to be a slave.

Four of the five students also heard the other students make remarks about hating to be Black and killing themselves if they were a slave.

The investigator interviewed other students who had done this activity in other periods. Of the 10 students interviewed, three of the students self-identified as Black. One of those students told the investigator the images of slavery were “too much” for him and when he had to sit through another period with those images, he asked to be excused.

“Of note, every single student interviewed reported that ‘Mrs Schwartzy’ is fair to all students, kind and their favorite teacher,” the investigator wrote. “I did not interview one student who believes that Mrs. Schwartzy would have intentionally created an environment that was harmful to even one student.”

When interviewed herself, Schwartzenberger said the lesson was about the cotton gin and wasn’t designed to mimic the experience of being a slave. A teacher that was co-teaching in the classroom denied that it was a contest and also said she heard Schwartzenberger ask which students wanted to participate.

Skidmore, the principal, told the investigator he did his best to listen to the mother’s concerns. He said when the girls’ mother called the teacher racist, he defended her character. In hindsight, he told the investigator, that was not an ideal response.

He said when he called their mother back, he offered a “safe space” for them where they could be separated from the class until they found a new teacher. “Mr. Skidmore adamantly denies saying that he would ‘segregate’ the girls from class and insisted he could ‘separate’ them,” the investigator wrote.

Investigator’s Findings

“There is no evidence to support the conclusion that Mrs. Schwartzenberger intended to harm the girls. Nevertheless, the reality is that the lesson was extremely hard for
these 13-year-old Black students to process without warning and with the added element of insensitive classmates and lack of attunement. For Mrs. Schwartzenberger,
who is a veteran teacher, this lesson was routine and, therefore, she may not have been processing the connections students were making in what was being said or that this
was, as far as these girls were concerned, the replication of a ‘slave experience.’”

She goes on to say that the girls were clearly emotionally affected by the lesson and the images of slavery.

She also concluded that Skidmore did not offer to initiate a formal investigation into what happened. That did not occur until the district was notified.

School district response

The Spokane School District sent a one-page response along with the investigation Friday. In it, it says that the top priority of the district is to make sure “every child feels cared for and about.”

“We regret any time someone is hurt while in our schools and apologize for a situation that made students feel emotionally unsafe,” the district wrote. “Our goal now is to deeply learn and understand the source of harm and prevent it from happening in the future.”

ACLU response

The ACLU responded to the report, saying it was released without adequate plans to address the findings and safely return the students to the classroom.

“While we appreciate the Spokane School District’s expressed desire to work with and solicit input from community, it is irresponsible of the district to release the independent investigator’s report without a plan to address the specific harmful experiences the girls endured,” said ACLU of Washington Youth Policy Counsel Kendrick Washington III. “In doing so, the school district is falling short of the promise of the equity resolution that it passed last summer and failing its students in the process. This represents a continuation of the mishandling of this complaint and raises the question of whether the school district has learned anything about how racially insensitive lessons and practices impact students and families.”

The mother of the students responded with the following:

“My daughters, and every student in that school, should be able to go to class knowing that they will learn in a safe and nurturing environment. They should also know that their school district will take complaints of racial discrimination and inequity seriously.”

You can read the investigator’s full report at this link.