Howard County teacher placed on administrative leave for telling students to write 'fun' slave song

A Howard County high school English teacher was placed on administrative leave last week after assigning students to write a "fun" slave song as part of a lesson on abolitionist Frederick Douglass — the latest in a string of racially charged incidents in the suburban school system.

Howard County Superintendent Renee Foose said that she put the Mount Hebron High School teacher on leave for four days after the school system learned of the incident.


Foose called the teacher "inexperienced" and the assignment "outrageous." Foose also said the assignment was not part of the school system's official curriculum.

"It was offensive and out of scope with what we should be teaching," Foose told The Baltimore Sun's editorial board Tuesday.

School system officials did not identify the teacher, saying it was a personnel matter. The teacher returned to the classroom Tuesday, when the district concluded its investigation, Foose said.

Foose said the school system is struggling to manage the fallout in schools from recent incidents, including "racially offensive" posts on social media by students, and the "blowback" from county residents and parents who disagreed with the schools system's response. Foose said she faced criticism for apologizing for the Mount Hebron teacher's assignment.

"Some thought we shouldn't have apologized; some thought we were too quick to apologize," Foose said. "I do not believe you can ever be too quick to apologize."

Mount Hebron High Principal Andrew Cockley wrote in an email to parents Dec. 7 that the assignment was linked to a lesson on the "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," and students were asked to create a slave song "as a means to learn how language can be used effectively to convey feelings and important messages."

However, Cockley wrote, "The activity was culturally insensitive and caused discomfort for many students. The teacher has apologized to all students given the assignment and their parents. The assignment has been removed."

African-American leaders in the county said they were disturbed by the teacher encouraging students in written instructions for the assignment to "have fun" and "entertain us all."


Larry Walker, president of the African American Community Roundtable, said he believed the incident "reflects a culture of insensitivity that is prevalent in our country, not just Howard County."

He believes the district's administration hasn't properly addressed the recent incidents.

"That's a huge frustration for those of us who are trying to console the students who are victims of these social media posts because leadership didn't do the right thing and address this systemically," Walker said. "It takes the leadership standing up to the community, saying this is not tolerable."

In November, an Atholton High School student posted a photo of herself in blackface on social media with a caption that read, "I'm finally a n---er." In a separate incident last month, a white student from River Hill High School posted a photo of herself holding what appears to be a handgun and the text, "I'm boutta shoot some n---ers."

Just last week, following another racially insensitive social media post, about 400 students walked out of Oakland Mills High School to express support for a proposed change in the district's policy that would require administrators to inform students and staff of any "direct or implied threat" made by another students.

"People are angry," Foose said. "And it's playing out in our schools."


Foose also has been criticized for not disciplining students responsible for the hate speech.

She said Tuesday that students have been disciplined in accordance with the county's Code of Conduct. School officials said they are prohibited by privacy laws from revealing any disciplinary measures taken against students.

"We have made it clear that any type of hate speech is not tolerated," she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.