Students at an upstate New York high school were given a writing assignment about whether Derek Chauvin should win a new trial over the death of George Floyd because of questions about one of the jurors who presided over his trial.
A high school English teacher at Saugerties Senior High School in Ulster County, 30 miles north of Poughkeepsie, New York, gave a journal assignment about the former Minneapolis police officer’s case to her ninth grade students on Friday, May 7, Kirk P. Reinhardt, Superintendent of Saugerties Central School District told CNN on Thursday.
An unidentified student, who was upset by the request which contained questions about whether juror Brandon Mitchell was impartial, contacted the principal and the assignment was immediately revised, Reinhardt said. Other students in the class were given an opportunity to voice what they were feeling about the assignment as well, he said.
Nonetheless, news of the essay question caught the attention of parents within the district and copies of the assignment spread on social media and in private parent Facebook groups.
The teacher, whom the district hasn’t named, asked her students to respond to a writing prompt in state Regents exam style that included information about Mitchell’s participation in a Civil Rights demonstration, which has recently emerged. The Regents exam is an annual subject-based state test used for high school graduation requirements, among other things, according to the New York City Department of Education.
In the assignment, “meant to develop critical thinking skills and challenge students to back their claims,” the superintendent said, the ninth graders were asked to use phrases like “it is evident,” “it is clear,” and “it is obvious” when responding to the prompt: “Should the Derek Chauvin case be retried because of Brandon Mitchell. Why or Why Not?”
A photo of Mitchell, one of the jurors who convicted Chauvin in April of murdering George Floyd, in a t-shirt with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s picture and the words, “Get your knee off our necks” from the March on Washington demonstration last year is at the center of controversy right now because some say the photo lays the groundwork for an appeal or new trial if a judge can be convinced that Mitchell lied on his juror disclosure form.
Mitchell says he answered “no” on his juror questionnaire form when asked whether he attended “protests about police use of force or police brutality” and seemingly does not consider the 2020 March on Washington to be such a rally.
“We strive to create a school environment where all students feel safe, seen, heard, respected, and valued equally, so even one student feeling uncomfortable because of this assignment is one too many,” Reinhardt said.
An opportunity to learn
The unnamed instructor, who has been teaching in the district for 28 years, has been “reassigned within the district” while the situation is further investigated, Reinhardt said.
“We will be reviewing our curriculum and our policies through this lens and having discussions with our staff, students, and community,” he said. “This is hard, but necessary work and we are all still learning. We acknowledge that we might get things wrong as we journey forward, but we know we must do better and are working to do so.”
Sakinah Irizarry, a parent within the Saugerties school district told CNN that’s exactly what she wants this incident to be about — learning. Irizarry posted a copy of the school assignment publicly on Facebook to share what was being asked of the high school’s students.
Irizarry, a parent of two younger children in the district who are not at Saugerties Senior High School, says she’s been advocating for diversity and inclusion within the district for several years and felt she should speak up as a Black mom of two children.
“There have been some calls saying, ‘People shouldn’t be having these discussions in school,’ and I’m like, schools are exactly where these discussions need to be had, but they need to be had in a constructive and forward-thinking way and absolutely not with lies,” she said. “When facts become up for debate, then we’ve really lost the focus of what all of us, the children, educators and community are there to do.”
Parents of children in the district and from the classroom where the assignment was given have contacted Irizarry privately to talk about the incident but have not spoken publicly about it to protect their children and themselves, she said.
“I don’t think I’m doing anything any different than a lot of what other Black mothers do,” she said. “And also what mothers do, try to protect their kids. In my view of what is protection it’s not just my own, it’s this community that I’ve lived in for 17 years. It’s all of the children in this community that my children will grow up around.”
In a letter to the members of the diversity committee, the Saugerties school board and administrators, Irizarry expressed her profound disappointment over the assignment and the district’s response.
“This assignment was not a thought experiment on how to present either side of an argument, it was instruction in how to refute objective truth, couching a lie in the language of absolutes to support your forgone conclusion,” she wrote. “That assignment flies in the face of the concept of news literacy, and teaches young people, who naturally have strong senses of fairness and justice, to not trust their own eyes and their own hearts.”