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Teacher Suspended for Telling Students to Pick Cotton in Slavery Lesson

A teacher in Rochester, N.Y., was placed on leave and is being investigated after parents said he told students to pick cotton during a lesson on slavery, school district officials said.

Parents of seventh-grade students at the Rochester School of the Arts said last week that Patrick Rausch, a social studies teacher who is white, gave balls of cotton to his students on Tuesday and instructed them to pick the seeds out.

The parents also said Mr. Rausch referred to himself as “massah” and allowed white students to stop cleaning the cotton when they asked, but not Black students.

“This has been going on all year long,” Vialma Ramos, the mother of a student in Mr. Rausch’s class, said in a Facebook post, describing other racist treatment she said her son had experienced in Mr. Rausch’s class. “I’m so angry and hurt for these kids.”

In a statement, Brendan O’Riordan, a spokesman for the Rochester Board of Education, said the district had placed Mr. Rausch on leave and had opened an investigation immediately after learning of the allegations. Mr. Rausch could not be reached for comment.

“The District takes these situations very seriously, as descriptions of what occurred in the classroom by the school community are extremely troubling,” Mr. O’Riordan said.

Ms. Ramos, who did not respond to a request for an interview, wrote that she initially did not believe her son when he told her that he had walked out of class after Mr. Rausch gave students balls of cotton and told them to clean them “for massah.”

But then she saw a Facebook post from another outraged parent, Precious Tross, showing the balls of cotton she said her daughter, who was also in Mr. Rausch’s class that day, had brought home from school. Ms. Tross could not be reached for an interview.

“She’s traumatized; she feels belittled,” Ms. Tross told The Democrat and Chronicle, referring to her daughter. “He made a mockery out of slavery. How dare you.”

Both Ms. Tross and Ms. Ramos added in later posts that their children had separately told them that in another lesson, Mr. Rausch had forced them to wear handcuffs and ordered them to free themselves. The students were berated for not being able to escape, both parents said.

“When he couldn’t,” Ms. Ramos wrote on Facebook of her son, she said Mr. Rausch had replied, “‘Your ancestors couldn’t do it neither.’”

According to state school enrollment data, about half the students at the School of the Arts are Black, and about 65 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

In a letter sent to families of the school’s seventh graders on Thursday, Kelly Nicastro, the school’s principal, said a substitute teacher had been assigned to Mr. Rausch’s class. Ms. Nicastro added that the school might interview students as part of its investigation, and that counselors would be available for those who needed support.

Rochester’s schools have faced disturbing allegations of racism in the past. Last November, a video of a white student in Pittsford, a suburb, holding an air pistol and threatening to kill Black people prompted a number of other parents and students to speak out about their own encounters with racism in the community.

Teachers in schools across the country have been disciplined for racist and discriminatory lesson plans. In Washington, D.C., an elementary school librarian was placed on leave in December after instructing third graders to re-enact the Holocaust, telling them to dig mass graves and act out shootings.

Mike Johnson, director of Save Rochester, a community organization aimed at alleviating poverty in the area, said he was a former student at the School of the Arts and was shocked when he saw Ms. Tross’s Facebook post last week. He and other community members are now calling for Mr. Rausch to resign or be fired.

“I never thought a teacher would inflict this type of damage on the students in their classrooms,” Mr. Johnson said.

The reports were especially painful, he added, given that the community was still healing from the 2020 death of Daniel Prude, a Black man, after Rochester police officers covered his face with a mesh hood and pressed his head into the ground.

Mr. Johnson said he had hoped the residents of Rochester would make more of a commitment to address racism in the community after that.

“It seems like this whole thing has taken a giant leap back from what we’ve tried to accomplish,” he said.

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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