Skip to main content

Cotton picking lesson leaves Black middle school students reeling in Spokane

caption: In this photo taken June 4, 2018, the downtown skyline is shown from the South Hill in Spokane, Wash.
Enlarge Icon
In this photo taken June 4, 2018, the downtown skyline is shown from the South Hill in Spokane, Wash.
(AP Photo/Nicholas K. Geranios)

It’s been almost a month since Emzayia and Zyeshauwne Feazell, 14-year-old twins, have stopped attending classes at Sacajawea Middle School in Spokane.

That’s when, they said, an activity in their 8th grade social studies class left them feeling hurt, angry, and traumatized. The class was in the middle of a unit about industrial economics. As part of a classroom activity, their teacher pulled out a box of raw cotton and told the class they were going to do a “fun” activity to see who could clean the cotton the fastest.

Emzayia and Zyeshauwne, who are Black, said their teacher’s activity made them feel uncomfortable. Enslaved people in the American South had been forced to pick cotton. To them, there was nothing fun about that history.

“I didn’t understand why she was actually doing this as a teacher,” Emzayia said, “why she would bring a box of cotton into class.”

The Spokane School District said by email that it is investigating what happened. A spokesperson would not elaborate further.

Zyeshauwne said the lesson didn’t fully register with her until about halfway through class. “Once I started to realize what we were actually doing, I didn’t like it,” Zyeshauwne said. “I didn’t want to pay attention and listen to it anymore.”

The twins were the only Black students — and only students of color — in their social studies class that day. They became even more uneasy when their classmates made comments about how they would not have picked cotton if they had been enslaved. “They didn’t have any reaction like we did,” Emzayia said. “They were just okay.”

The twins’ mother, Brandi Feazell, was at work and on the phone with a customer when her daughters walked in. After they told her about what happened in class that day, Brandi Feazell said she immediately called the school and spoke with the principal assistant. “I had relayed to him at that point, what my girls had described to me that transpired, and he immediately went into defense mode,” Brandi Feazell said.

“Instead of maintaining his job, and defending these children, and making sure that their health and their safety, mentally and emotionally was taken care of, and being their first line of defense; he did not portray any of that. He was more worried about his faculty.”

Brandi Feazell said that during her phone call with the principal assistant, he said the girls’ social studies teacher would never do such an activity, because she had Black family members. Brandi Feazell said that the principal assistant told her that the teacher was a “very kind and gentle soul.”

Brandi Feazell said she told the principal assistant that she would take the situation to the district. A few minutes later, she said he called her back. “He called me back a few minutes later, and had told me that only thing he could offer me at that point was to ‘segregate’ my daughters into a room by themselves, so they ‘wouldn’t have to be around the white teacher,’” Brandi Feazell said.

The principal assistant's proposal angered her not just because she said he used the word “segregate,” using a term from Jim Crow times, but because it seemed to her this plan punished her daughters while leaving the social studies teacher’s actions unaddressed. “I was hurt, because we weren’t the ones that did something wrong,” Emzayia said. “She was the one giving us cotton, the one telling us to do it, and yet she’s not getting in trouble.

In an emailed statement to KUOW, Spokane Public Schools wrote “Spokane Public Schools recently received a complaint regarding a classroom lesson on the Industrial Revolution at Sacajawea Middle School. Upon receiving the complaint, SPS promptly solicited a third-party investigator to fully understand the situation. We will share the investigation’s findings as soon as they are available. SPS is committed to transparency, as well as making sure all our students, families, and staff feel supported and heard.”

Brandi Feazell said that since her phone calls with the principal assistant, she has been in contact with members of the Spokane Public Schools diversity advisory council. But before she can feel comfortable sending her daughters back to school, Brandi and her daughters want the school to help develop a safety plan for them — like make sure they wouldn’t have to return to the teacher’s class.

The Feazell family is working with the ACLU of Washington, and TeamChild, a non-profit that helps youth assert their civil legal rights, to determine the resolution they would like to see come from Spokane Public Schools.

Kendrick Washington II, the youth policy counsel at the ACLU of Washington, said the Feazell family’s mission has been direct.

“Right from the beginning, the family was very clear that they just wanted to ensure that this sort of thing did not happen again, to any other children,” Washington said.

The family is asking the district to remove the principal assistant from his position. They also want the girls’ social studies teacher to face discipline, and for Spokane Public Schools to issue a formal apology.

What happened to the Feazell girls at Sacajawea Middle School is just one occurrence of a larger trend of using problematic activities to teach students about slavery.

In 2019, a fifth-grade teacher in New York was accused of holding a mock slave auction. In March, an official at a middle school in Mississippi apologized for an activity that asked students to pretend they were enslaved and write letters that glossed over the reality of enslavement.

“Several times a year, I get some complaint from a student, either about an incident and a lesson in a classroom, or about the use of the n-word in a classroom, either by a student or a teacher,” Washington said. “It’s not as uncommon as you think.”

This isn’t the first time Spokane Public Schools, or the principal assistant, have been accused of discrimination. In 2016, the district agreed to pay $10,000 to settle a case in the Washington State Court of Appeals after a Black student alleged the principal assistant discriminated against him because of his race, and refused to enroll him in school when he arrived wearing a hoodie.

The student said that the principal assistant harassed him after he was enrolled, and he was later suspended and expelled. The ACLU of Washington was also involved in the case. The court later found that the student’s expulsion was excessive and discriminatory.

Another outcome the Feazell family would like to see from Spokane Public Schools is for the district to follow through on a racial equity resolution they passed in June 2020 and implement anti-racism training districtwide.

To Washington, apologizing to the Feazell family and implementing anti-racism training sends a message to families that equity is more than just a word, it’s also something the district can act on.

“It’s easy to talk about equity,” Washington said. “If they're serious about equity, then they need to be here to do the work. And if they don't do the work, then there is no reasonable expectation from families and people in the community to believe that they are anything they've said they are.”

For now, twins Emzayia and Zyeshauwne are still at home, waiting to return to school. Emzayia says that she wants the school district to know that she feels that it’s okay to teach about slavery, but doing “extreme” activities like asking students to clean cotton isn’t.

“You can teach it without having it being offensive, and putting kids down about what you are teaching.”

Correction, 4:00 p.m., 6/7/21: The original version of this story misspelled the name of Sacajawea Middle School. The story has been updated with the correct spelling.

Why you can trust KUOW