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Black father says he's frustrated after cotton lesson at son's school

Posted at 10:21 PM, Feb 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-17 23:54:35-05

FORT MYERS — A Southwest Florida dad says he was shocked at what his son brought home from school Tuesday night.

Jason Williams is a local father of two.

He says his 8-year-old son, Jaxson, came home and proudly displayed a small bag that he got from school.

Jason asked his son how he got it.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he says.

Inside of the bag were pieces of cotton and cotton seeds.

Williams, a Black man, tells FOX 4 he was speechless.

“It’s humiliating for my son to come home and flash a bag of cotton in my face cause I know what it is. And I said ‘Where’d you get that?’ And he said 'Oh we picked it today in school'.”

That school is Mid Cape Global Academy in Cape Coral.

“We have children picking cotton off a plant during Black History Month.”

Williams says he immediately reached out to the school.

He tells FOX 4 a front desk attendant answered, and he felt like his concerns were not understood or taken seriously.

“Either you’re that naive or you just blatantly didn’t care.”

That’s when he reached out to FOX 4, and we presented his concerns to the school.

Williams said he then received a call back.

He tells me the school did attempt to apologize, but he was not interested in their apology.

That’s when he hung up the phone.

The school’s principal tells me a teacher brought the cotton to school as part of a lesson on crop from regions across the United States - something the teacher has done for the last 3 years.

But, Williams says more thought should have been given to just who was sitting in the classroom.

“How don’t you consider what lessons you’re bringing and how that could offend someone or another culture?”.

The Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture says by 1850, most of the 2.5 million enslaved Africans in the U-S worked on cotton plantations.

That’s a history Williams says he’s grown up hearing about since childhood.

“Me being a Black man and having to listen to my great grandfather tell me the struggle that they had to do using and picking this crop in the South. Like that is offensive.”

He says Jaxson’s bag of cotton seeds lead to a tough conversation on Tuesday night, and tears rolled down his face as he shared his son’s response.

“It was kind of upsetting because he’s like ‘Dad, so they beat up kids…they were making kids like me pick this stuff and they whipped them?’ ‘Yeah man. Because were Black. Yeah.’”

To gain broader perspective, FOX 4 reached out to Dr. Ted Thornhill.

He is the director of the Center for Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University.

“I think this parent is right. It’s disturbing and racially problematic. Just because you do something every year...doesn’t make it right.”

Thornhill says it’s the initial reaction that Williams says he received from the school, prior to reaching out to FOX 4, that heightens his concern.

“That anger that parents feels is amplified by the indifference.”

Dr. Thornhill suggested that the school apologize and provide a “formal commitment to do better.”

The company that manages communications for the charter school issued a statement to FOX 4.

Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention. We researched the situation and found that this was part of a larger lesson about the SE U.S. where cotton was a major crop. Because many of the students had never felt or saw raw cotton, the teacher gave them that opportunity and allowed any student who wanted, to take the cotton and seeds home. There was no further activity or homework planned and students were not required to do anything further. Our teacher has reached out to the parent directly to explain the intent and practice of the lesson and apologize for any misunderstanding that may have caused discouraged feelings. As a standard practice, we always encourage parents to reach out directly to teachers if ever there is a concern about a specific lesson. Most of the time it is simply a misunderstanding. If the issue cannot be resolved in the classroom, administration will be involved. – Colleen Reynolds, spokesperson for Mid Cape Global Academy

Reynolds also said over the phone that the lesson was strictly about cotton.

"It was about a crop. It was not about slavery.”

But the school’s principal, Jamie Trotter, spoke to FOX 4 directly.

She says cultural diversity and global perspectives are core values of Mid Cape Global Academy.

Trotter says she’s very proud that her school’s student demographics represent more than 30 countries.

She says:

“What happened was a learning situation for the school, as we will evaluate and do what’s best for our school moving forward. We’ll take a closer look at cultural sensitivity. That truly was not on the radar. We didn’t mean to hurt anyone else.

But, Williams says that’s not enough.

“It doesn’t matter what culture you come from.This is something that every adult in this country knows about. I don’t accept it. It’s unacceptable.”