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California school district sued over slave cotton field

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Slaves were forced to pick cotton in the United States, enduring unspeakable hardship even as they made plantation owners wealthy./AFP
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Aug 15, 2022 - 08:05 AM

LOS ANGELES — A cotton field planted at a Hollywood school to teach students about the horrors of slavery caused emotional distress to an African-American girl, according to a lawsuit seeking $250,000 in damages in California.

Rashunda Pitts says her daughter has been traumatized by the episode, according to the Los Angeles lawsuit, which alleges discrimination and negligence.

“She has uncontrollable anxiety attacks and… experiences bouts of depression when she thinks about the cotton picking project,” says the suit, filed this week.

The child, identified only as S.W., started attending Laurel Span School in Hollywood in late 2017.

After an enthusiastic beginning to the term, S.W. became sullen and tired, the suit says.

A short time later, as Pitts was dropping her daughter off at school, she noticed cotton plants on the campus.

“Bewildered as to why a cotton field would be growing in Hollywood, let alone on public school property, she called the front office to speak with the principal,” the suit says.

She was told “children in S.W.’s class were reading the autobiography of (reformer and abolitionist) Frederick Douglass and that picking cotton was one of the experiences that he wrote about in the autobiography.”

The assistant principal to whom she spoke explained the field had been planted to give youngsters an idea of what slaves were forced to do, the suit says.

“Completely incensed with the idea that the school would have her daughter and other children pick cotton as a school exercise to identify with the real-life experience of African-American slaves, Ms. Pitts expressed her disappointment and hurt in regards to the culturally insensitive and incompetent project.”

Pitts’ daughter told her that her “social justice teacher… required the students to ‘pick cotton’ to gain a real-life experience as to what the African-American slaves had endured.”

“S.W. further explained that discussion of the project in school terrified her and she (was) horrified at the idea,” the claim says.

The filing says parents were not asked for permission for their children to take part, and had not been told of the project in advance.

Na’Shaun Neal, attorney for Pitts, told AFP he was seeking a quarter of a million dollars on behalf of S.W., who is now 17 years old.

According to the suit, the Los Angeles Unified School District, which oversees the school, said in a statement it regretted that an “instructional activity” had been deemed culturally insensitive.

“When school administrators became aware of a parent’s concern about the cotton plant, they responded immediately by removing the plant,” the statement said, according to the suit.

In a statement to AFP, a spokesperson for the school district said: “Los Angeles Unified does not typically comment on pending or ongoing litigation.”

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