April 12, 2011 -- Trying to bring a Civil War lesson to life, history teacher Jessica Boyle turned her Norfolk, Va., fourth grade classroom into a slave auction April 1. Black and mixed-race students at Sewells Point Elementary School, who make up 40 percent of the class, were separated from the rest of the students and auctioned as part of an instructional unit on the Civil War.
School Principal Mary Wrushen became aware of the simulation when the school received two parent complaints. "Why is it uneasy? Because I'm an African-American. I could imagine being in school and basically made fun of in front of everybody," Jacole Graves, parent of a Sewells Point student, told ABC affiliate WFTV 9.
"Parents contacted the school principal to indicate their concerns about the lesson, and that prompted the principal to investigate and issue the attached letter to all parents in the classroom," said Norfolk Public Schools spokeswoman Karen Tanner.
The Norfolk Public School curriculum, which follows the standards set by the Virginia Department of Education, promotes integrating visual and oral text presentations. But Boyle's mock Civil War slave auction was not part of the approved curriculum.
"There are policies in place to prevent inappropriate lesson plans," said Norfolk Public Schools spokeswoman Elizabeth Mather. "The teacher in this case did not present the lesson plan to the principal for review."
"Although her actions were well intended to meet the instructional objectives, the activity presented was inappropriate for the students," Wrushen wrote in a letter to parents.
Boyle's attempt to dramatize a lesson on slavery and the Civil War was perhaps related to the fact that Sewells Point Elementary was named for one of Virginia's earliest Civil War battles, the Battle of Sewells Point, in 1861.
Wrushen said, however, that "The lesson could have been thought through more carefully as to not offend her students or put them in an uncomfortable situation."
"The school district does not condone this type of lesson in any way," said Norfolk Public Schools Superintendent Richard Bentley. "It was wrong. It was outside the boundaries of the curriculum and appropriate instructional practices."
Jessica Boyle has been with the Norfolk Public Schools for six years, but this was her first mock slave auction. Boyle's employment status is considered "a personnel issue," according to Mather.
The Norfolk County Schools has drawn previous attention for other lessons too. Earlier this year, students were told to write a discipline essay inspired by a movie about the mafia. Last year, a guidance counselor handed out fetus dolls to illustrate an anti-abortion rights stance.