Class assignment asking students to ‘set your price for a slave’ gets international attention

Pictured above: The question about slaves on a class assignment handed out at Blades Elementary last week.

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor
glorialloyd@callnewspapers.com

The Mehlville School District is getting international attention for a Blades Elementary assignment in which a teacher asked students to “set your price for a slave.”

A fifth-grade teacher at Blades Elementary in Oakville is on administrative leave after giving students an assignment last week that was supposed to be an interactive project to examine westward expansion through a free-market lens, with students assigned a role and a product to sell or contribute to the colonial marketplace.

But the assignment included human beings as a commodity to be sold alongside more mundane products like lumber or oil.

“You own a plantation or farm and therefore need more workers. You begin to get involved in the slave trade industry and have slaves work on your farm. Your product to trade is slaves,”  the assignment read. “Set your price for a slave. ____ These could be worth a lot. You may trade for any items you’d like.”

You can find the full assignment embedded below.

Superintendent apologizes, but ‘no quick fix for cultural bias’

The assignment began to get attention over the weekend, when a person posted it saying that a friend’s son brought it home as an assignment. The son had been assigned the role of a slave owner, and had set a price of $5 for two slaves.

The district launched an investigation over the weekend, and Superintendent Chris Gaines apologized Tuesday for the assignment.

“Asking a student to participate in a simulated activity that puts a price on a person is not acceptable,” he said in a statement. “Racism of any kind, even inadvertently stemming from cultural bias, is wrong and is not who we aspire to be as a school district. I am sorry and disappointed that this happened in our school.”

To prevent it from ever happening again, the district will be “devoting significant time and resources to train our staff on issues related to cultural competency, implicit bias and equity,” Gaines continued, although he noted, “There is no quick fix for cultural bias.”

Blades Principal Jeremy Booker sent an email to the school’s parents Monday calling the class assignment “culturally insensitive.”

The assignment “attempted to address market practices. As part of both the Missouri Learning Standards for fifth-grade social studies and the fifth-grade Mehlville School District curriculum, students were learning about having goods, needing goods and obtaining goods and how that influenced early settlement in America,” Booker said in the email. “Some students who participated in this assignment were prompted to consider how plantation workers traded for goods and slaves.”

After being alerted by parents over the weekend, Booker said he met with the teacher Monday morning to talk about the purpose of the assignment, how it affected students and how the teacher interpreted curriculum standards.

“The teacher has expressed significant remorse,” Booker said.

Still, all teachers and staff at Blades will soon get professional development on “cultural bias,” the principal added.

“We are working together to ensure all students and families feel valued and respected at Blades Elementary,” he said, giving his phone number so that parents could call him if they have any questions.

Mother questions assignment: ‘There’s no value’

Angela Walker, a teacher in St. Louis Public Schools whose son attends fifth grade at Blades, said she was shocked when her son came home with the assignment over the weekend.

“There’s no value to playing a game about slavery,” Walker told KMOV.

Her husband, who is black, had an even stronger reaction, she said.

Walker’s husband said to their son, “What are we doing here, bud? Do you understand there’s no value on a life?”

As a teacher in St. Louis city schools, Walker said her school district does a lot of professional-development training on “trauma-informed cultural sensitivity,” and she hopes Mehlville will do the same: “We have to be more culturally sensitive.”

NAACP wants bias training, apology

John Bowman, president of the St. Louis County NAACP, told KTVI that he hopes to meet with administrators from Mehlville to talk about the classwork and how to respond to it.

He called it “sad and unacceptable.”

“I wouldn’t have this problem in Jennings School District, I wouldn’t have it in Normandy, because they are automatically aware of a sensitive topic like this,” Bowman said.

Before Gaines issued his apology, Bowman called for just that.

“It should be a public apology so that the message is made clear not only throughout the school districts but throughout the state that this is very unacceptable, it’s very inhumane,” Bowman said. “It does not speak to us taking care of each other as human beings.”

Here’s a look at the full assignment: