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Black mom sues Los Angeles schools over cotton field project at elementary school; social justice teacher allegedly said it would demonstrate what 'slaves had endured'

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Photographer: Micah Green/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A black mother filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District and the board of education last week over a cotton field project at an elementary school in 2017 that a social justice teacher allegedly said would demonstrate what "African American slaves had endured," the Los Angeles Times reported.

What are the details?

Rashunda Pitts claimed in the suit that her daughter "has suffered extreme emotional distress" over the project at Laurel Span School, the Times said.

In addition to the district and school board, the suit names the school's then-principal and social justice teacher as defendants, the paper said, adding that during the last five years Laurel Span School has closed, and a new school — Laurel Cinematic Arts Creative Tech Magnet — has replaced it.

Pitts said she noticed in September 2017 her daughter becoming "very quiet and reserved" when her daughter used to "vibrantly share her day with her mother," the lawsuit states, according to the Times.

One day Pitts saw a cotton field in front of the school as she was dropping off her daughter, and she called the school's office to speak with Principal Amy Diaz, who was unavailable, the paper said, citing the lawsuit.

Pitts spoke with Assistant Principal Brian Wisniewski, who told the mom that her daughter's class was reading Frederick Douglass' autobiography and the cotton field was created so students could have a "real life experience" of slavery, the Times added, citing the lawsuit.

More from the paper:

After Pitts expressed her disappointment with the project, Wisniewski agreed and said the school's principal would reach out to Pitts, the lawsuit states. Diaz listened to Pitts' request for the cotton field to be taken down in 24 hours but said that the school couldn't accommodate such a quick turnaround, saying it could aim for the end of the week or the following week, but couldn't make any promises, according to the lawsuit.

Wisniewski and Diaz didn't immediately return requests for comment. An LAUSD spokesperson said the district didn't comment on ongoing or pending litigation.

Pitts' daughter said her social justice teacher required students to "pick cotton" — and while Pitts' daughter wasn't forced to do so, she had to watch other students complete the project while she cared for other crops in the garden, the Times said, citing the lawsuit.

In addition, Pitts' daughter said she was afraid to tell about the project because she didn't want retaliation from teachers or bad grades, the paper reported.

The school didn't get parental permission for student participation in the project, the suit says, according to the Times, adding that parents weren't told about the project.

The lawsuit adds that the school district later released a statement to a reporter saying it regrets "that an instructional activity in the garden at Laurel School was construed as culturally insensitive," the paper reported.

"Tending to the garden where a variety of fruits, vegetables, and other plants grow is a school-wide tradition that has been in place for years and has never been used as a tool to re-enact historical events," the statement said, according to the Times. "When school administrators became aware of a parent’s concern about the cotton plant, they responded immediately by removing the plant."

But Pitts alleges that the district lied to cover up its conduct and that its statement "directly contradicts" the assistant principal's words about the project, the paper reported.

As a result, Pitts said her daughter was discriminated against on the basis of her race, the Times said.

Pitts added that her daughter "has uncontrollable anxiety attacks and has experiences bouts of depression when she thinks about the Cotton Picking Project," the paper said, citing the lawsuit.

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