A Connecticut school is under fire from parents who say a field trip that purported to immerse students in the underground railroad experience went way too far.
James and Sandra Baker, parents of a student at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy, testified at a Hartford Board of Education hearing on Tuesday night–as the Hartford Court reported. The Bakers said that during the “Underground Railroad Reenactment” activity on their then-7th-grader’s class field trip, students were called the “N-word.” They also said that the children had to pretend to be “picking cotton, like a real slave,” hold their heads down and “not make eye contact with the white masters.”
The Bakers said that the reenactment was incredibly traumatizing for the child, who is black. They’ve been fighting the school’s decision to participate in the program ever since, according to Hartford’s WFSB.
The field trip took place at Nature’s Classroom, a 40-year-old residential environmental education program.
Sandra Baker testified that reenactment was so realistic that, at some points, her daughter “did not know if the leaders were joking,” and said she was particularly troubled because, “as an African American parent, I carefully consider how my children receive messages about racial identity.” According to WFSB, the Bakers had previously filed complaints with Connecticut’s Department of Education, Commission on Human Rights, and Office for Civil Rights.
The Baker family isn’t the first to express concern about Nature’s Clasrsoom. In 2008, a Nature’s Classroom field trip sparked a similar debate in western Massachusetts when Jefferson Street School fifth graders participated in the Underground Railroad activity, according to Teaching Tolerance, a magazine published by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Parents of Jefferson student Maya Saakvitne, who is also black, were upset that white facilitators played the role of “masters” and “bounty hunters.” At the time, Gwen Agna, principal of Jefferson Street School, told Tolerance that “at least 50 percent of graduating 6th graders cite their Nature’s Classroom trip, specifically the Underground Railroad activity, as one of their favorite school experiences.”
Nature’s Classroom is a longstanding program that has received several educational awards for its programs.
John Santos, the Executive Director of Nature’s Classroom, told The Huffington Post that, while he regrets that the Baker’s child had such a negative experience, “we are not in the business of creating harm, physically or emotionally but the legitimacy of the activity needs to be judged by individual participants at all grade levels.” He also pointed out that the Underground Railroad activity is just one of over 500 programs available; the school chose to participate in it.