NJ teacher under investigation for kicking students during ‘cotton-picking’ slavery lesson

NJ teacher under investigation for kicking students during ‘cotton-picking’ slavery lesson
Image via Shutterstock.

A New Jersey middle school teacher is being investigated after a student complained of an inappropriate lesson on slavery. The Toms River Regional School District is conducting a “thorough investigation into this matter,” Michael Kenny, a school district spokesman, told NBC News. The investigation was initiated by the school district after a student from Toms River Intermediate School-East filed a complaint against eighth-grade social studies teacher Lawrence Cuneo and detailed the incident on social media.

The Asbury Park Press received screenshots of social media posts in which the student said they were made to lay on the floor and pretend to pick cotton, while Cuneo made whipping noises and kicked their feet. "It's good to be informed about slavery but making us clean and pick cotton and pretending to wip us? Are you nuts it's 2020 not 1800 get it right," the student wrote in the Instagram post.

Cuneo, who is white, has been a teacher in the Toms River district—which is 82% white—for 18 years. He is also serving his third term as the mayor of Pine Beach, a small town within the Toms River district. While he expressed regret that some may have been offended by his lesson, Cuneo also defended it in an email to New Jersey 101.5 FM on Wednesday, claiming that he was depicting a “degrading and despicable” aspect of American history. “Slavery existed within our country and the lessons learned, even if uncomfortable, need to be told,” Cuneo wrote. “At no time was my intention to harm the sensitivities of any student. If this lesson did that, I apologize to those affected.”

Asked to describe his lesson, Cuneo referred the radio station to refer to a story in the Toms River Patch, in which students defended the exercise as voluntary and “fun.” Students told Patch that they would defend the teacher in an upcoming school board meeting, and that allegations that they were kicked by Cuneo are false. Interviews with students and parents indicated that students found the lesson to increase their understanding of both slavery and the struggles slaves faced. Lisa Nuernberg told Patch that her child was in the class in question, and contradicts the student who complained. "There was never, ever kicking or any type of violence," Nuernberg said on behalf of her child. She believes that the lesson was not promoting racism, adding that her child saw it as "a fun learning experience."

While some students report that Cuneo was sure to ask if students were willing to participate, and told them it was voluntary, whether or not one participates directly in a situation like this does not affect the trauma they might face. Every student interviewed by Patch supported Cuneo, insisting that the allegations against him were untrue, including that he kicked his students. The students did describe picking cotton and having to “separate the seeds and sticks and debris” as part of the class’s lesson. While this activity could be seen as an appropriate learning activity for some, it can hurt or offend others who do not want to participate or relive the past traumatic experiences of the past. Even being in a classroom for such an activity, regardless of participation, can result in discomfort and emotional trauma for students.

Kenny told NBC News that the district is conducting an investigation into the matter, noting that “it seems initially clear that there was no ill intent.” He added that while “better judgment should have been used,” the district is “keeping in mind that our curriculum has evolved to include more hands-on, authentic activities." Kenny also told the news outlet that he could not further comment on what action, if any, will be taken against the teacher.

"No one felt uncomfortable or as if he was going [too] far because we all knew that the only purpose of the lesson was for us to understand the lives of a slave," Catalina Corna, a freshman at Toms River East, told the Patch about the lesson. Yet, someone did feel uncomfortable, which is why the complaint was made. While some parents dismissed the complaint as “ridiculous” and emphasized that a “classroom lesson couldn’t possibly depict the horrors [of slavery],” for those who have faced discrimination or have familial history tracing back to the history of slavery, a classroom stimulation like this could have a different impact. In a district like Toms River—where just .02% of the students identify as African American—it’s essential to remember that just because one person does not find something offensive does not mean it is not harmful to others. Privilege can create blind spots, and plays a huge impact on what people deem as offensive or wrong in many cases. Teaching lessons that depict gruesome aspects of history is important, but how educators portray these realities matters more.

Toms River has a long history of Ku Klux Klan activity, which has had a presence in the Garden State since the 1920s. Most recently, in 2017, it was reported that recruitment flyers were distributed throughout the Toms River District and in three other New Jersey towns, encouraging enlistment in the Ku Klux Klan. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an active chapter of the KKK, The Militant Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, still operates in the town. In a 2018 report, the SPLC listed 18 active hate groups in New Jersey, ranking it fourth in the nation with regards to the most organized hate groups in the country.

Because the Toms River district is majority white, what lessons have historically been deemed “appropriate” by school leadership might not be considerate of students of color. The rush by the community to dismiss the student’s complaint as “ridiculous” only implies that the school might be an unsafe environment for minorities and people of color: This singular protest is already at risk of being drowned out by the majority.

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