Teacher sparks outrage for using black students in slavery lesson

When discussing slavery in America, it's important to look at the numbers (Armani Martin/AJC)

NEW YORK — Kids and parents say this Bronx teacher needs a lesson — in racism.

Middle School 118 teacher Patricia Cummings shocked and traumatized children in her social studies classes when she singled out black students and told them to lie on the floor for a lesson on U.S. slavery — and then stepped on their backs to show them what slavery felt like, students and a staffer said.

Students said Cummings, who is white, conducted the lesson in multiple seventh-grade classes as part of a unit on the infamous Middle Passage, during which Africans were kidnapped and brought to America as part of the slave trade.

Kids and adults in Cummings' school, where the student body is 81 percent black and Hispanic and just 3 percent white, were horrified by the offensive lessons they said occurred roughly two weeks ago.

Patricia Cummings, social studies teacher, leaving MS 118 in the Bronx, New York, on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018. (Andrew Savulich/New York Daily News/TNS)

Credit: Andrew Savulich

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Credit: Andrew Savulich

"It was a lesson about slavery and the Triangle Trade," said one of Cummings' students, who asked to remain anonymous.

"She picked three of the black kids," the boy said, and instructed them to get on the floor in front of the class. "She said 'You see how it was to be a slave?' She said 'How does it feel?' "

When a girl on the floor made an uncomfortable joke and said she felt fine, Cummings stepped on her back, the student said.

"She put her foot on her back and said 'How does it feel?' " the student said. " 'See how it feels to be a slave?' "

Kids and a staffer said Cummings was removed from her post for a couple of days following the incident but then returned to class and was in school Thursday.

However, the $68,934-a-year teacher was reassigned later Thursday after the Daily News contacted the city Education Department about her slavery lesson.

Education Department spokesman Douglas Cohen said she is not working around kids anymore.

"Ms. Cummings is being reassigned away from students pending the outcome of the investigation," Cohen said. "We are providing additional support and guidance to the school."

MS 118 principal Giulia Cox declined to comment on Cummings' actions.

Cummings' students said the lesson followed a showing of a video of slaves being beaten, tortured and thrown over the side of a ship.

"She had students lie on the floor," said another kid who was in one of the lessons. "She was measuring the length and width to show how little space slaves had in the ship. It was strange."

Cummings has worked in city schools since 2016 and is also the MS 188 cheerleading coach, according to her LinkedIn profile.

She refused to discuss her slavery lessons when a reporter approached her after school on Thursday.

"Excuse me, I'm not talking to anyone, no," she said, when asked if she stepped on black students in her class.

Cummings quotes both Nelson Mandela and Walt Disney on her class web page, which also bears the image of a bald eagle and an American flag.

"Whatever you do, do it well. Do it so well that when people see you do it they will want to come back and see you do it again," reads the Disney quote.

Cummings' ill-conceived lesson isn't the first time a city teacher has grabbed headlines for giving offensive instruction involving slavery.

In 2013, two teachers from Manhattan Public School 59 taught a lesson that used killing and whipping slaves to teach subtraction and multiplication.

Those teachers weren't disciplined for their actions, but they did receive training in cultural sensitivity, Education Department officials said.

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