• Education

Howard schools superintendent, teachers union continue to clash over "'Slave Song" assignment

Howard County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Renee Foose
Howard County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Renee Foose (File photo by Brian Krista)

Howard County Superintendent Renee Foose and the union representing the teacher placed on administrative leave for assigning students to write a "slave song" last month continue to clash over whether the assignment was appropriate.

In a letter sent to Foose earlier this month, the general counsel for the Maryland State Education Association, which represents Howard County teachers, demanded she retract and correct public statements she made about the Mt. Hebron teacher being inexperienced, and her assignment being out of line with the curriculum.


Kristy Anderson said that Foose's public acknowledgment that the teacher was placed on administrative leave pending an outcome of an investigation violated her due process rights, and violated school board policy.

The superintendent's actions to "publicly discipline and impugn an employee without conducting a proper and thorough investigation are absolutely unconscionable," Anderson said.

Foose responded in a letter last week that she would not retract her statements, and reiterated her stance that the teacher's assignment was inappropriate and offensive.

"I fully understand how relatively inexperienced, newly hired non-minority teachers can mishandle situations in which they simply lack the experience, training, and/or education in cross-cultural pedagogy, and this appears to have been the case in making the assignment in question," Foose wrote.

Foose said last month that the teacher, who she did not identify, was placed on administrative leave after assigning her students to write a song that mimics a "slave song", and encouraged them to '"have fun and entertain us all."'

"The fact that [the teacher] volunteered to apologize to her students and their families, as well as to rewrite a far more culturally sensitive version of the assignment, reflects her own understanding as to the hurt and confusion her own actions have caused," Foose wrote in her letter.

Foose spoke publicly about the assignment during an interview with the Baltimore Sun where she discussed a series of incidents that have roiled racial tensions in the school district in the last year, especially after the November presidential election. Foose called the assignment "offensive and out of scope with what we should be teaching."

A number of parents and black community leaders had expressed concern about the insensitive nature of the assignment.

In the weeks after, the teacher apologized at a school board meeting.  Some students and members of the Mt. Hebron community voiced support for the teacher who they called culturally sensitive. Many said the teacher meant no ill will, and told students to have fun with it because some were nervous about presenting a song to the class.

The union's letter argued that the assignment, which was connected to a lesson about abolitionist Frederick Douglass, was modeled after an assignment that is part of the county's English curriculum.

The Mt. Hebron teacher's assignment read:

"You are going to make a song that mimics a slave song. It can lament the situation in which you find yourself, highlight a maxim you feel is important, or heed a cryptic warning using symbolism/metaphors, . . . etc. You can write your own tune or borrow one! Have fun and entertain us all!"

Foose rebuffed that claim. She included in her response, a copy of the model assignment, called a  "protest song", that the Mt. Hebron teacher's assignment mirrored.

"Compose a song with at least three verses and chorus. It can be about anything you want (war, equality, religious freedom, school, your parents, etc.), as long as it is something that matters to you and you feel you have something important to say about it."


Both songs encouraged students to use figurative and cryptic language.

"Slave songs had a unique role in the history of both the nation and the African-American experience, and I seriously doubt that slaves or their descendants, individuals of any other repressed society or culture, or even those who promote social justice would honestly ever categorize slave songs as "fun" or  "entertaining", Foose wrote.

The union maintained that Foose's decision to speak publicly about the incident appeared to "be an intentional effort to sabotage [the teacher's] career, which to date has been effective and successful."

Foose noted that she did not discipline the teacher, although she had the authority to do so, and instead placed her on paid leave "while an administrative review of the matter was conducted and conversations regarding instructional and cultural competency could be had."

She also denied that she violated the teacher's privacy or that she said the teacher was disciplined.

Anderson, said in a written statement that there was a better way to appropriately respond to racially sensitive instruction and respect a teacher's right to confidentiality.

Foose's letter "does nothing to help create an atmosphere of tolerance, inclusion, and open dialogue in Howard County," she said in the statement.

Foose said in her letter that she would not comment further because the union had filed a grievance on behalf of the teacher.

"True racial harmony, tolerance, and sensitivity in HCPSS can only come as part of a genuine partnership between all stakeholders, " Foose wrote. She added that the union's actions reflected a lack of interest "in working with my administration in turning around this serious social problem facing our schools."