A Georgia school insisted today there was no “maliciousness” intended when a third grade math quiz asked students to compute the number of beatings a slave got a week and to calculate how many baskets of cotton he picked.
But the Gwinnett County School District has launched an investigation to determine how the offending questions made it onto the students’ homework sheets.
The math homework assignment was given to more than 100 students at Beaver Ridge Elementary school in Norcross, Ga., as part of a social studies lesson, Gwinnett County school officials said. The assignment outraged parents, community activists and members of the Georgia NAACP.
Sloan Roach, a Gwinnett County school district spokeswoman, told ABCNews.com that the students were studying famous Americans and as an attempt to create a cross-curricular worksheet, one teacher used Frederick Douglass and slavery beatings for two of the questions.
Although only one teacher wrote out the controversial questions, another teacher made copies of the assignment and it was distributed to four out of nine third grade classes at Beaver Ridge, Roach said. The school is not publicly naming any of the teachers who are suspected to be involved.
“We are conducting a human resources investigation, and working with the principal to get statements from the teachers…so that we can make sure that we have a very good idea what exactly occurred and who was involved,” Roach said. “Obviously we understand that parents are concerned about these questions.”
One math problem question read, “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”
Another asked how many baskets of cotton Frederick filled.
Roach said she agreed that the questions were inappropriate and part of the investigation would be to “make sure teachers are writing questions that are appropriate and respective,” but wouldn’t speculate on what sort of action would be taken against the teachers involved or whether district teachers would be required to have additional training.
“It does not seem there was any intent of maliciousness here, it was just a teacher who wrote some bad questions,” she said. “This was an isolated case involving these teachers at this school and at this grade level.”
Parent Christopher Braxton said he was “blown away” when he saw the assignment his 8-year-old son had brought home, and told the Atlantic Journal Constitution that he will be meeting with Principal Jose DeJesus today to express his concerns. DeJesus declined to speak with ABCNews.com about the incident.
Roach said that while DeJesus would not be issuing an apology, he is meeting with parents on an one-on-one basis.
“I think I’m still in shock,” parent Nicole Thompson told ABC News affiliate WSB-TV. “I definitely want an apology. I want them to acknowledge that not only was this bad judgment on their behalf, but we need to do better.”
“Something like that shouldn’t be embedded into a kid of the third, fourth, fifth, any grade,” parent Terrance Barnett told WSB-TV. “I’m having to explain to my 8-year-old why slavery or slaves or beatings are in a math problem. That hurts.”
Georgia NAACP president Ed DuBose declined to comment, but his office said he has set up a meeting with area superintendent Dr. Gale Hey this evening to discuss this particular matter.
According to Beaver Ridge’s improvement plan for the 2011-2012 school year, one of their objectives is to ”increase academic performances in math” for all students, but specifically African-American students.
Records show that of Beaver Ridge’s 1,261 students, nearly 60 percent are Hispanic; 28 percent, African-American; 5.3 percent, Asian; and 4 percent, white.
Ron Butchart, the department head for the University of Georgia’s College of Education and a historian of African-American education, said that while he hadn’t heard about the incident at Beaver Ridge Elementary, teachers are often encouraged to combine diciplines in lessons and speculated that the Beaver Ridge teacher was making “an honest effort to integrate math and social studies.”
“But God, have some sensitivity…I’m absolutely dumbfounded,” Butchart said. “This was a teacher who is taking seriously the effort to be interdisciplinary … but what a dreadful way to do it.”
Butchart said that third graders can handle the knowledge of slavery, but should be taught it from a perspective they can understand through literature, not math.
This is not the first time Atlanta-area public schools have come under fire for teachers giving out controversial assignments to students. In September, students at another elementary school in Cobb County were required to read a letter in which a Saudi Arabian woman wrote approvingly of wearing the Islamic veil, her fiancé’s multiple wives and Sharia law.
Roach said this was the first controversial incident at Beaver Ridge Elementary.
ABC News’ Olivia Katrandjian and ABC News affiliate WSB-TV contributed to this report.