Parents say an elementary school instructor’s outlandish technique for teaching children about segregation has fostered fear and confusion among students rather than a fundamental understanding of racism.
Officials at Manch Elementary School have launched an investigation into the unusual Black History Month lesson, which involved separating children by skin color and giving preferential treatment to black students.
Clark County School District officials declined Thursday to discuss in detail exactly what unfolded in Lora A. Mazzulla’s library sessions with students this week at the school near Craig Road and Nellis Boulevard. But officials confirmed they asked Mazzulla to cease the teaching method Wednesday after receiving calls from three parents.
“It was not appropriate. We would not want children to be upset after going through a lesson that is supposed to teach them a principle,” said Marsha Irvin, the district’s northeast region superintendent. “I think there could have been a different way to teach the lesson.”
One perturbed parent gave a detailed account of what her crying 9-year-old child told her after school Tuesday, saying Mazzulla began class by seating black children at one set of tables and everyone else across the room.
“All the African-American children were given board games to play, and everyone else had to put their heads at the table, and they weren’t to look up or speak,” said Stacey Gough, whose daughter Amber is a third-grader at Manch. “She told them that she believes in everything that Martin Luther King (Jr.) had to say and she wanted the white children to know what it was like to be black back then.”
Mazzulla then allowed the black children to taunt their white classmates, Gough said her daughter told her.
“The black children were making fun of the white children, and saying things like, ‘You deserve this for what your ancestors did to us,’ and the teacher was letting them,” Gough said.
School District officials could not confirm that Mazzulla allowed taunting, but generally acknowledged the rest of Gough’s account.
Principal Pat Garcia said she is taking parents’ allegations of impropriety seriously, but is still in the initial stages of an investigation and has not been able to confirm all the facts of the case or get Mazzulla’s account of exactly what happened.
“We absolutely are looking into it,” Garcia said of Mazzulla’s curriculum. “We’ve had a couple of parents who have voiced concerns.”
Mazzulla, who is white, was hired by the district in September 2000. As a librarian, she has a bachelor’s degree and holds the same state licensing credentials as classroom teachers.
A nationally recognized elementary education expert said Thursday that it appears Mazzulla had good intentions but went about them in a misguided manner.
Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass., said classroom simulations and role-playing are common and powerfully effective teaching methods.
But during his years studying race issues in U.S. schools, he was unfamiliar with any other instance in which teachers employed Mazzulla’s method of separating children by race to teach about racial segregation.
“Usually, they take the blue-eyed kids and treat them differently from the brown-eyed kids,” said Orfield, director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation and co-director of the Harvard Civil Rights Project.
Orfield said teachers in the United States generally try to ignore race because they are not adequately trained in how to approach what remains an explosive issue some four decades after the heights of the civil rights era.
“With all the emphasis on math and reading tests, we skim over training our teachers on how to teach important parts of our society, such as race,” Orfield said. “Everything about race is so supersensitive, so you really have to frame this type of instruction the right way, and teachers generally aren’t prepared.”
Garcia said this is Mazzulla’s second year at the school near Nellis Air Force Base, but said she was prevented by state law from discussing much else about the librarian or the allegations lodged against her.
“The major thing is that it’s going to be a personnel issue,” the principal said.
Meanwhile, Gough said her daughter remains upset because it has provoked ongoing taunting at the school between children of different races.
The worst part of the incident, Gough said, is that her daughter has developed a skewed vision of what the color of someone’s skin signifies.
“She never saw another child for being part of another race until yesterday,” Gough said Wednesday. “Now she’s afraid that the black kids hate her for something she doesn’t know anything about.”
Orfield, the Harvard professor, said it is common for children of such an age to fail to recognize racial differences.
“Kids don’t develop racial consciousness until fourth or fifth grade usually,” he said.
Orfield, the Harvard professor, said it would be a mistake to punish Mazzulla.
“Let’s not sanction the teacher for trying. Let’s give her new skills for trying to do this in a better way,” he said.
Irvin, the region superintendent, said the district’s equity and diversity office supplies teachers with age-appropriate materials to assist teachers in instructing racial sensitivity in a responsible way.
“When you’re teaching sensitive information, you really have to lay the foundation and make sure the students are prepared,” Irvin said.
She encouraged parents to contact the school’s principal if they have questions or concerns about the lesson.
Still, Gough remains both angry and puzzled. “What was the point of that lesson? My daughter keeps asking me, ‘What did we do to the black people?’ … This didn’t teach the kids anything.”
Mazzulla did not return a phone message left with her husband.