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Western cancels ‘slave ship’ role play after online criticism

Activity went on for past six years without any concerns

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mrzTink Wilson

CONTROVERSY — Tawayi Wilson’s Facebook post went viral after she expressed concern about Western’s “slave ship” role play.

Online outrage ended a local school’s plans for an activity where students would role play as kidnapped slaves aboard a ship.

Recently, parents of students at Western Middle School received a letter notifying them that their children would be participating in a class activity where students would play the role of kidnapped natives of the African content on a slave ship crossing the Middle Passage. That letter was shared online, quickly spreading across social media and creating waves of controversy. As a result, Western School Corporation nixed the role play.

Tawayi Wilson was among the first to share the letter on Facebook where it was shared nearly 700 times. Wilson, a Howard County resident, said she intended to enroll her 7-year-old mixed-race daughter at Western next school year, but upon hearing about the slave ship role play she decided otherwise.

“I was heartbroken actually,” said Wilson. “To think they would allow something like this on a crowd that is not ready for something so emotional and so harsh. No kid should have to endure anything like that. At the same time, it’s kind of hard for adults to even grasp something like that. How can you expect a child with that type of perspective to understand something like that?”

The letter sent out to parents indicated that the activity would involve raised voices, students being loosely bound with cable ties they put on themselves, orders to kneel and/or lay on the ground, invasion of personal space without physical contact, and threats and language “typical of the hateful attitudes representative of this time period.” After receiving backlash on social media, a subsequent notification was sent out to parents, telling them the lesson would be modified to not include the role play.

A request for comment from WSC went unanswered, but the school provided an Indianapolis news station the following statement:

“Mr. Pax is a creative teacher who works hard to develop lessons that engage his students so they can apply what they have learned to real life experiences. The purpose of his activity, ‘Slave Ship,’ was not to offend or dehumanize anyone, but to create empathy and compassion, and to show a glimpse of the harsh reality of slavery.

“Mr. Pax has been doing this activity for the past six to seven years without any concerns expressed. The feedback from his students has been that it was a meaningful activity that helped them to think about the injustices that occurred. However, based on the concerns expressed this year, Mr. Pax will modify the lesson to cover the content and academic standards without the role play.”

Upon hearing about the cancellation of the event, Wilson said she believed students should be educated about the history of slavery but in a manner different than was originally proposed within the role play.

“I think all aspects of history are very important,” said Wilson. “I think you need to learn a little bit about everything. I think it’s important no matter how old you are, no matter who you are, but I think there’s a certain way to go about it. I think you need to put it into perspective and take into consideration the mind you’re trying to teach.”