A Seventh Grade Social Studies Teacher Had Students Pick Cotton as a Class Activity

A teacher at the Rochester's School of the Arts in New York is on administrative leave after putting students in shackles and instructing them to pick cotton. 

ball of cotton plant on wooden background
Photo: Getty Images

A teacher at School of the Arts in Rochester, NY is on administrative leave after reports that he guided students through disturbing reenactments of slavery, which included picking cotton and wearing shackles in the classroom. Parents are understandably concerned and outraged. As districts across the country take steps to ban critical race theory and conversations on race and identity, the incident is a reminder of why students and teachers need to have them.

Patrick Rausch, who has been with the Rochester City School District for 20 years instructed the class to pick seeds from cotton—which he symbolized with cotton balls. He also instructed students to call him "Massah" according to Precious Tross, whose daughter Ja'Nasia Brown was in his seventh grade class. The white students in the class refused to pick the cotton saying, "that's not my job," and threw the cotton balls into the trash. Rausch allowed those white students to sit down and get on their computers, but Black students had to continue pretending to pick the imaginary cotton.

"She's traumatized; she feels belittled," Tross told USA Today. "He made a mockery out of slavery. How dare you."

Save Rochester Inc., an organization that has been vocal in support of students and their families, says it's not the first time Rausch has behaved inappropriately. He also "brought a pair of handcuffs" to class, despite no obvious connection to the curriculum or lesson. Ja'Nasia was one of the students who says she was harassed in this process.

"Mr. Rausch proceeded to coerce Ja'Nasia into allowing him to handcuff her, threatening 'ISS (In-School Suspension)' and even 'expulsion' if she did not comply," Save Rochester Inc. wrote on their Instagram. "Under duress, Ja'Nasia complied, citing that she 'was crying and visibly and emotionally disturbed' throughout the entire ordeal."

When Brown and her classmates attempted to get out of the shackles, USA Today reports that Rausch replied,"It's OK; your ancestors couldn't either." Tross told USA Today, "I almost drove off the road," in response to the news of her daughter's most recent experience in the seventh-grade class.

Another parent, Vialma Ramos, told USA Today she was in a state of disbelief when hearing the news that her son, Jahmiere O'Neal, had been forced to pick cotton in class. "I have fought all along for Jahmiere to be included in everything his peers are, and this man degraded him, insulted him, and made him not want to be Black," Ramos told USA Today. "I was in shock."

Rausch's lesson is the most recent instance of racism, and racial insensitivity to surface in American schools as conservatives push to limit discussions of racial identity by banning critical race theory.

Rochester parents and community advocacy organizations want to see more consequences that temporarily leave. On Instagram, Brown and her mother want Rausch to be fired and have his credentials revoked to prevent him from teaching in the future. Save Rochester Inc. agrees.

"Save Rochester Inc. strongly recommends that the superintendent reach out to the family immediately, and that the Rochester City School District release a statement denouncing any forms of abuse to students," they said. "We believe these allegations, if true, are insidious and harmful. Students having experienced the events aforementioned should be provided with counseling for managing their trauma as soon as possible."

The school district released a statement saying they're investigating the situation. "The district takes these situations very seriously, as descriptions of what occurred in the classroom by the school community are extremely troubling," they wrote.

It's unclear if Rausch will face long-term punitive measures.

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