·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary

Lawsuits & Litigation

Lawsuit: Black Teenager “Traumatized” By Sight of Other Students Picking Cotton

— August 17, 2022

The mother of the pseudonymous student filed a lawsuit after the Laurel Span School said that it could not remove the cotton plants within 24 hours, even though administrators agreed that an educator’s “real-life slavery” lesson was inappropriate and that the cotton plants should be removed.

A Black parent has filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District and the local Board of Education, alleging that elementary students at the Laurel Span School were made to pick cotton as part of a slavery education lesson.

The alleged incident took place in 2017.

According to The Los Angeles Times, the lawsuit was filed by Rashunda Pitts, who says that her 14-year-old daughter experienced “emotional distress” as a result of the project.

The so-called “social justice” teacher behind the project, says the Times, had intended to helps students “gain a real-life experience as to what the African-American slaves had endured.”

However, Pitts says that the lesson disturbed her daughter, who suddenly became “very quiet and reserved” in September of 2017, where before she had used to “vibrantly share her day with her mother.”

Pitts claims that—one day, as she was dropping her daughter off to the Laurel Span campus—she noticed a “cotton field” in front of the school.

Concerned, Pitts called the school’s main office and spoke to then-Assistant Principal Brian Wisniewski, who explained that Pitts’ daughter—identified in courts documents only as “S.W.”—was reading Frederick Douglass’s autobiography in class, and that the teacher had cultivated the small cotton field to provide students with a “real-life” slavery experience.

Image of the City of Los Angeles, CA
City of Los Angeles, CA; image courtesy of salewskia via Wikimedia Commons,

When Pitts said that she found the project disagreeable, Wisniewski said that he shared her sentiment and promised that the school’s principal would contact her.

However, then-Principal Amy Diaz said that she could not fulfill Pitts’ request to have the cotton field removed “within 24 hours,” as the school could not accommodate such a fast turnaround.

While Diaz was unable to meet Pitts’ immediate demand, she did say that the school could have the cotton field removed within the span of one to two weeks.

Interestingly, S.W. said that she herself was never compelled to pick cotton, but simply watched other students complete the project while she tended to crops in another part of the garden.

Although S.W. claims that she was uncomfortable with the lesson, she did not inform her mother because she—in some way—feared “retaliation” from her teachers or “bad grades.”

The Los Angeles Times notes that the “social justice teacher” did not request parents’ permission to allow their students to participate in the project, nor were parents explicitly informed of the project’s existence.

A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Unified School District later released a statement to reporters stating that the district regrets “that an instructional activity in the garden at Laurel School was construed as culturally insensitive.”

“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 district said. “When school administrators became aware of a parent’s concern about the cotton plant, they responded immediately by removing the plant.”

Pitts, however, asserts that the district’s statement “directly contradicts” what she was told about the project, and that—as a result—her daughter was discriminated against on the basis of her race.

“S.W. has suffered extreme emotional distress,” the lawsuit states. “She has uncontrollable anxiety attacks and has experiences bouts of depression when she thinks about the Cotton Picking Project.”

Pitts and S.W. had earlier filed a lawsuit against the district, which was dismissed in April after the plaintiffs failed to produce pre-trial documents.

Although Pitts and S.W. petitioned the court to reconsider their case, the request was dismissed earlier this month.

The mother and daughter’s most recent lawsuit was filed shortly after the dismissal.


Black mom sues L.A. Unified over cotton-picking project at elementary school, suit says

Black parent accuses L.A. elementary school of traumatizing her daughter with ‘cotton-picking’ project

S.W. v. Bd. of Educ. For L. A. Unified Sch. Dist.

Join the conversation!