Black mom sues L.A. school district over cotton-picking project in elementary school

The lawsuit states that Rashunda Pitts’ 14-year-old daughter suffered emotional distress, uncontrollable anxiety attacks and episodes of depression as a result of the 2017 project.

A Black parent who said it was “culturally insensitive” for her daughter’s elementary school to set up a cotton field to let students experience what slaves went through filed a civil rights lawsuit last week against the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Board of Education.

The Los Angeles Times reported that, according to the lawsuit, Rashunda Pitts’ 14-year-old daughter—who is referred to as S.W.—suffered emotional distress, uncontrollable anxiety attacks and episodes of depression as a result of the project. The suit contends the teen also experienced racial discrimination after her mother voiced her concerns to the school.

According to the lawsuit, Pitts first observed S.W.’s “very quiet and reserved” behavior in September 2017, which was different from the way she would typically act when discussing her day with her mother. 

cotton picking project
The Los Angeles Unified School District and the Board of Education are facing a lawsuit over an elementary school’s project that included a cotton field. (Photo: AdobeStock)

Pitts eventually saw the cotton field herself one day while dropping off her daughter in front of Laurel Span School, which was closed after the project and has since been replaced with a magnet school. She called the office to speak to the school’s principal, Amy Diaz, who was unavailable, but Pitts did speak with the assistant principal, Brian Wisniewski. 

According to the lawsuit, Wisniewski told Pitts that S.W.’s social justice class was reading Frederick Douglass’ autobiography and the cotton field was set up so students could get a “real life experience” of what enslaved people endured.

As part of the project, the lawsuit contends, the social justice teacher required some children to “pick cotton.” While S.W. did not have to do so, she was forced to watch other students do it while she tended to crops in the garden. The lawsuit claims the school failed to get parents’ consent or inform them of the project. Pitts’ daughter admitted she was hesitant to share the assignment with her mother because she didn’t want retaliation from the teacher or bad grades. 

“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 school district told a reporter in a statement quoted by the Los Angeles Times. “When school administrators became aware of a parent’s concern about the cotton plant, they responded immediately by removing the plant.”

Diaz eventually heard Pitts’ comments, which included a request to remove the project within 24 hours, but said the school was unable to accommodate such a quick turnaround, according to the suit. 

Pitts said that the school tried to cover up the project and that Diaz’s claim that they were unable to get it down quickly contradicted what the assistant principal—who she said agreed with her disappointment—had said previously.

A spokesperson for the school district said it does not comment on ongoing or pending litigation, according to The Times. In addition to the school district and the school board, Diaz and the social justice teacher are also named as defendants in the lawsuit.

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