Norwalk field trip raises racial concerns

NORWALK, Conn. – A rudimentary approval for a school field trip was held up Tuesday night by the Board of Education due to racial concerns.

The board voted unanimously to give a conditional approval to a Ponus Middle School trip to Nature’s Classroom in Ivoryton on May 5-9. That meant that Ponus administrators could go ahead and arrange the trip if there is a deadline they have to meet before the next board meeting in two weeks. Otherwise, board members will consider the trip after researching a news story brought to their attention by a concerned citizen.

The parents of a 12-year-old Hartford student have alleged that their daughter was called the “n-word” during a reenactment of slavery at the four-day educational program at a Nature’s Classroom in Charlton, Mass., according to news reports. The girl reported being chased through the woods and subject to mock threats of physical injury during the play-acting session.

“It’s just something that is unbelievable because you think, Nature’s Classroom, they’re learning about trees and indigenous life in the earth,” Angela Harrison said. “Who thinks they’re going to be doing that? But they’ve been doing it for years.”

Harrison said she felt she needed to bring it to the board’s attention.

“Before you fund it maybe you need to figure out what is going on, what’s happening with the lawsuit,” she said. “If this is going on do we want to continue to subject our children to it? Because they have been doing it for years.”

Board members took it to heart.

Migdalia Rivas said she would abstain from the vote so she could research the issue. Artie Kassimis then asked if the board would look into it. Rosa Murray and Mike Barbis said the contract for the trip might be time sensitive.

The possibility of a deadline was not provided to the board, so Barbis suggested a provisional approval. Lyons said that could be done, that the school could be authorized to go ahead if it couldn’t wait until the next board meeting, but if it isn’t time sensitive the board would like to consider it again.

Superintendent Manny Rivera said he would check to see if there is a deadline involved with the school making the arrangements. If not, the board is expected to discuss it again in two weeks.


22 responses to “Norwalk field trip raises racial concerns”

  1. M Allen

    Didn’t know the BOE got involved with approving field trips. Especially to Natures Classroom, where NPS have been going for years. Are they approving it due to cost? And if so, what does it cost and who pays?

  2. M Allen

    As to the subject matter itself, I would hope our schools know what topics are covered at Natures Classroom as well as the methods used. Norwalk students have been going there for a while now so I would be pretty surprised to learn no administrator knew the subject matter being taught. Re-enacting slave escape, evasion and capture seems a little over the top for learning why slavery was a bad thing. But hey, I guess our kids learn a lot of things differently these days than when we went to school.

  3. Per Policy, all school field trips of this kind require BoE approval. Usually these are routinely approved on our consent calendar, but one of our members asked that the Nature’s Classroom trip be handled separately.

    The cost of the trip is paid by the students. The school decides on which of the programs offered by Nature’s Classroom that the students will participate in. My understanding is that Ponus (the school in question for this trip) has not participated in the Underground Railroad program for many years and isn’t planning to participate this year, either.

  4. David

    That a BOE should even have to consider that fact that a student might be “chased through the woods and subject to mock threats of physical injury during the play-acting session.” in 2013 is absolutely BEYOND me!

  5. Lifelong Teacher

    It’s easy to make the allegation. We do not know if there is any truth to it.

  6. Dennis DiManis

    Re-enactment of slavery? Oh yeah, that’s just the thing for kids to be doing. Next let’s have Nazi Concentration Camp Roundup, Taliban Woman-Punishing, and maybe wrap it all up with Suicide Hijacking.

  7. TG

    The Underground Railroad simulation has been offered for years and years at the many locations of NC throughout many weeks of the year to many students from many schools. It is a hallmark activity of the program. So far as I know, it is only one parent this year that has complained- and not her child, but her. This complaint, from a parent in the Hartford area, has led people in our area to question the activity despite the fact that for years and years, parents have learned about the activity at informational meetings prior, and have heard about th activity from their returning children. If NPS chooses not to participate in this aspect of NC (and I should hope they would not abstain from approving the whole trip because of an activity which is optional) , but should NPS choose not to participate, please let it be based on what OUR students and OUR teachers- the ones who have first hand knowledge of the experience- have to say about it, not the third hand opinion based on some Hartford parent’s opinion. The activity is a solid one- and one that most students who have experienced it will tell you was one of the most impactful of the week, which is the favorite week of their middle school years.

  8. marjoriem

    Micromanagement of an activity that has been going on for years? Is this really the Board telling the professionals (once again) that they don’t know what they are doing? I certainly hope not.

  9. Tim T

    Completely disgraceful. Only a moron would support this.

  10. TG

    FYI, Regarding the specifics of the case, per Nature’s Classroom’sown investigation, NO one reported hearing any NC teachers use the offending word, and per my own experience, NO ONE runs and gets chased through woods. It is not conducted that way. I have a lot more to add but don’t wish to from my little phone screen.

  11. marjoriem

    Street talk for some black students sometimes involves calling each other the N word. Maybe that was what was heard? I am not saying it is right, but I have heard it on rare occasion.

  12. M Allen

    marj – I don’t think what you saw in the BOE vote was an attempt at micromanagement. It seems like they were presented with an issue by a concerened parent and decided to look into it. Giving provisional approval was the smart move until the facts could be discerned. It didn’t slow the process and allowed them some time to investigate the merits of the concern. Would you have preferred the BOE ignored the issue without review? Of course the headline then would have been “BOE ignores parent’s concern over racial insensitivity.” And there would have been a whole group out there that would have loved that too. Probably some of the anti-micromanagement crowd. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The BOE will never be able to win with some people until it is manned by nothing but teachers.

  13. marjoriem

    M Allen, I hope you are right. I understand that a negative comment of that sort needed to be taken into consideration but, given all the positive experiences NPS has had with this trip, the concern seems to be magnified. Is the media at fault for making this a bigger issue than it is? Could the BoE handle a complaint of this nature differently? Teachers don’t usually choose field trips without thorough investigations of the appropriateness and the possible learning experiences provided for the students. Perhaps a nod to the teachers’ expertise would have helped smooth over the relationships teachers and the Board are in conflict about?

  14. M Allen

    marjoriem – I think the BOE just erred on the side of “let’s look at this based on limited information.” If this blew up into a bigger issue that they were unaware of, then they would be answering questions of why didn’t they take it more seriously. I have to say, after watching the video from CNN on the Hour’s version of this story, the representative of NC didn’t really answer the issue very well. He seemed kind of nonchalant about the whole thing. But from what Mike Lyons said, the roleplaying of the underground railroad was an option that NPS didn’t participate in anyway. Maybe previous trips did, I don’t know. I’m pretty sure slavery was a bad thing without having to “experience” the plight of escaped slaves through roleplaying. But that’s me. Books and discussions used to be a pretty good way of learning back in the old days. Maybe “hands on learning” is the only way some kids can learn that slavery is bad. I don’t know.

  15. M Allen, your analysis is correct. Board member Migdalia Rivas said she wouldn’t vote for the program, and member Artie Kassimis wanted us to look into it, too. Giving a provisional approval prevented derailing the program while giving us two weeks to investigate if anything was really wrong. I was supportive of Nature’s Classroom in The Hour:
    “Norwalk has sent literally thousands of kids to Nature’s Classroom, including all three of mine,” said board Chairman Mike Lyons. “To my knowledge we’ve never had a complaint from any of the kids we’ve sent there.” Lyons said he does not expect the CHRO to issue a finding for some time and that until that happens, he does not want to cancel the field trip. “If there’s no decision from the CHRO, I’m not inclined to cancel a field trip because of one uncorroborated complaint,” he said. “Nature’s Classroom should be considered innocent until proven guilty.”
    So there was no rush to judgment or micromanagement here (and you’re right, had we cavalierly brushed aside an allegation of racism that would have brought its own negative consequences).
    Dr. Rivera is researching this and has been in touch with Roton’s principal (who confirmed that the Underground Railroad option was NOT chosen for this trip), and he’ll report back to us on the 17th.

  16. TG

    Mike, I am thankful that as a parent of kids who attended NC you were able to stick up for the program. Did your kids week at NC include participation in Underground Railroad or no? I am truly hoping that in researching this issue, the board will talk to our kids and our teachers. I chaperoned seven trips to Nature’s Classroom. I participated in Underground Railroad four times, three as a conductor, and once as a safe house keeper. Every time I participated, I also went to the follow up discussion, although the school teachers were not required to be there for that part. I also followed up in classroom discussions upon returning to the classroom. In all my years, I never heard one negative remark about the activity from a student or a parent. This particular Hartford parent either has the wrong information about the activity, or some participant in the activity made some bad judgement calls completely contrary to the guidelines of Nature’s classroom, which Nature’s Classroom has both disputed and denounced. We are a nation of eggshell walkers when it comes to issues of race. Slavery is an ugly part of our collective past. I have had African American friends tell me they feel it is degrading to re-enact such an ugly part of their history, but please understand, the activity only introduces the horrors of slavery – it neither exploits them for an
    entertaining simulation, nor goes too deep. It just gets kids thinking about it. In fact, only the very beginning has students actually being slaves working while the slave masters order them. They are soon rescued by conductors, who conduct them in a very orderly manner throughout the course. No one is ever chased through the woods being degraded. Along the way they meet good guys and bad guys, those who perpetuate the system and those who seek the change it. Everything is handled with the utmost sensitivity. And we, their classroom teachers, who love these kids, are there to see to that. Everyone feels, in a very mild way, what it is like to be the oppressed, everyone gets to see the risks involved in standing up for what is right, and the lesson then goes to discuss with kids how we perpetuate the concept of oppression even today, and how we can change it. There are myriad great conversations that go on. Some criticism says this goes to far, and then others say it doesn’t go far enough and therefore simplifies the horrors. In all my years of experience, it does neither. It is a very appropriate activity for the age level. The students are moved by it. I’ve hear people say we would never do this with, say, the Holocaust. Actually, I beg to differ. It is not impossible for me to imagine asking my students to simulate some facet of that oppression, either. For example, to spend a day hiding their true identity out of fear, then discussing how that felt and how that happens with some groups today. No, we would not pretend to put kids in gas chambers – but neither does Underground Railroad pretend to pile kids into slave ships or beat them, or worse. We all know there is worse. But I think this activity attempts to get them to understand just a facet of this.

    Of course, should this now become too sensitive to touch, and I suspect it will – people are just too fearful to touch what is construed to be racist, though I disagree this is racist at all -but should this be too sensitive, it has always been optional. The fact remains that there is not one week of their middle school years that kids remember more than Nature’s Classroom. For as long I taught it was always tenuously on the chopping block – too expensive for kids who couldn’t afford it, thus rendering it exclusive (despite that kids hear about it in sixth grade, giving plenty of time to fund raise , including school sponsored fundraisers, plus scholarships, etc). Yet for some kids, it is the only time they have ever been in the woods. Ever! They do five hour hikes, science, nature and literature classes, drama, science fair, team building, so much. I truly hope the good name of NC is fully restored.

  17. marjoriem

    I applaud you, TG, for taking the time to explain and support an important experience for our students in such detail. Perhaps the Board should talk to teachers and parents about the learning that goes on during the Underground Railroad experience, rather than make a quick decision that our students should not participate because of one uncooberated complaint. I would welcome such an experience for my child. Students need to experience this facet of slavery in order to begin to understand what it was like. The discussion that follows sounds well planned and gives students the opportunity to learn to be empathic. What is wrong with this world that the knee jerk response is that we need to be sure the Underground Railroad experience is not a part of this trip? TG, we are lucky you spoke up. You, the other adult participants and the teachers should have been questioned first, not the principal who said the Railroad was NoT a part of the trip.

  18. marjoriem

    Sorry, that was uncorroborated. Typo!

  19. M Allen

    Well Marj – were any of these other individuals at the BOE meeting where the issue came up? Wasn’t that the point of them making a conditional approval? So they could look into the allegation deeper? This was brought up on the fly and you wanted them to what? Start making phone calls from the meeting room to solve this right then and there?
    And NC might be the greatest thing to education since education was invented, but have we really reached a point where the only way kids will understand how bad slavery was is to do it through hands-on experience? I hate to say it so bluntly but, are they that thick that lessons, pictures, movies and every other method of learning available just isn’t enough? How about we put them in mock jail for a couple of days so they get a feeling for what prison is like and why committing crimes is a bad thing? Not real jail, but one with teachers and chaperones. It’s all well and good to teach about slavery, and we should never run away from that part of our history, but if we want to really reinforce serious issues, might we not consider the more rampant issues they might actually deal with in today’s world? Or are we just out to reinforce the slavery bit because that was the worst possible example of man’s inhumanity against man that has been committed here in the US? I’m really trying to understand, but what is taught by NC that these kids can’t get in a classroom? Is travelling upstate and staying overnight really required for learning or is this more an effort to get those kids who never leave Norwalk out into a different environment? And there’s nothing wrong with that, but I just want to know what it is that is being defended so vigorously here.

  20. marjoriem

    M Allen, did you not read that Manny called the principal of Nathan Hale to find out that the Railroad event was NOT a part of the experience for the students? He didn’t do that at the BoE meeting. I never said that the Board members should call during the meeting. That is just untrue. I agree that the decision should have been conditional, but conditional on the findings of the accusation. Since the findings of the accusation may not be available before the trip (I believe that’s right), then teachers, parents and those who have had experience with this event needed to be questioned. Since the event was not even on the schedule (and it appears that the trip will be approved), I suggest we both stop trying to win our respective points.

  21. TG


    What I’m saying is what I’m saying. And I’m already too wordy on this site as it is, so I don’t want to say it all again. BUT…;) No, NC is not the only way to teach slavery, but a.) it’s not all about slavery (see above) and b.) it’s what a lot of teachers would like to do if they weren’t so busy planning their classroom lessons to pass standardized testing, and now, the Common Core. And I hope by just a few of my examples that you can see that much of what is taught can NOT be taught in a classroom. It’s an immersive and enriching experience, and you need only talk to students, present and former, to understand how impactful it is for them. I don’t even work for NPS anymore, but I will vigorously defend any program that looks like the way education might look if we had unlimited time, resources, and support to make it happen. Plus, you have NO idea how many NPS kids have never left this little area. And those that have- how many are completely out of touch with nature. It’s actually pretty funny to see them complaining how hard their hike was!

  22. M Allen

    Well, I think the focus on the Underground Railroad program is a bit misplaced since the issue wasn’t with the program itself. Rather it was an isolated and uncorroborated accusation of it going too far. On another note, a neighbor’s child just came back from a Jefferson 5th grade trip to NC for a week. Not sure what sessions she participated in, but she apparently had a good time.

Leave a Reply

Recent Comments