ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — A group of parents in the Rochester City School District are sounding the alarm after their kids came home this week saying a teacher at the School of the Arts engaged in racist remarks and activities. 

Students who spoke with News 8 said the 7th-grade social studies teacher brought bags of cotton to school, and made students pick out seeds. They said on another occasion, the teacher brought in shackles and handcuffs to use on the students during a lesson.

“He said, ‘It’s cotton, you’re going to be picking cotton today,’ so I immediately was like, ‘Oh, I’m not doing that,’” said student Janasia Brown. “And then he was like, ‘Do it. It’s for a good grade.’” 

Students said the teacher favored the white students in class. They said during the cotton-picking incident – students in the class got up to throw out their cotton, refusing to participate, but only the white students were allowed to do so.

“I just felt ashamed to be my own race,” said student Jahmiere O’Neal. “He made me feel degraded.” 

Vialma Ramos-O’Neal says her son came home and told her the same things. 

“I honestly did not believe him, because I never would have expected anything like that to be happening in this day and age,” she said.  “The children of color were not given a choice and whether or not they wanted to partake in this, the Caucasian children were able to decline throw out their cotton and do a separate activity. But my child had to be forced to do that, as well as be handcuffed, as well as be shackled. Absolutely not. This is unacceptable.”

Students also say the teacher criticized their weight, and used “the R word” in class.

The Rochester City School District says teacher was placed on leave and an investigation is underway. The district is asking parents and students who were involved in this incident to contact them with that information.

“In a District of black and brown students, it is important to be sensitive of the historical framework by which our students are engaging and learning,” Rochester Board of Education President Cynthia Elliot said in a statement sent out Friday.

The Rochester Board of Education sent a letter to parents, saying a substitute teacher has been assigned to the class. That letter also says children in the class may be interviewed as part of the ongoing investigation.

Counselors will be available for any students who would like to discuss the incidents in question.

Statement from the Rochester Board of Education

The District was made aware of a lesson that caused great concern during a 7th grade Social Studies class at School of the Arts this past Tuesday.  The teacher was immediately placed on leave, and an investigation is underway.  The District takes these situations very seriously, as descriptions of what occurred in the classroom by the school community are extremely troubling.  A letter was sent to the families of this teacher’s students informing them of the situation.  In that letter, we provided an email address that families could use to share any relevant information and concerns.

Board President Cynthia Elliott stated, “In a District of black and brown students, it is important to be sensitive of the historical framework by which our students are engaging and learning.” 

While this investigation is in process, we cannot provide any additional comments. 

Letter sent to parents

As you may be aware, there was a lesson that caused great concern during your child’s Social Studies class this past Tuesday. I want to assure you that we take these allegations very seriously. The teacher was immediately placed on leave, and an investigation is underway.

A substitute teacher has been assigned to this class to ensure that learning is not interrupted. As we investigate this situation thoroughly, your child may be interviewed. If this occurs, you will be notified.

Please know that the social emotional well-being of our students is incredibly important to us. School counselors are available for students who may need to discuss this situation. In addition, if you have any information to share related to this, please email us at SOTAinfo@rcsdk12.org.

Thank you for your continued support as we work to resolve this situation.

School of the Arts Principal Kelly Nicastro