Matthew Christians – one of the two eighth-grade Social Studies teachers at MacDonald Middle School who gave students an assignment on slavery that asked students to imagine themselves as enslaved persons and answer questions that some parents found offensive – has been put on administrative leave, according to East Lansing Public Schools Superintendent Dori Leyko.
“The teacher has been placed on administrative leave during the investigation that is non-disciplinary at this time,” wrote Leyko to ELi this morning. The district became aware of past assignments given by Christians that required students to argue for the “positives of slavery” on Friday, April 23, she explained.
ELi became aware of the 2012 assignment on April 21, after publishing a story about the 2021 assignment given by Christians and his colleague Katelyn Newcombe and the collective apology issued by the teachers, Leyko, Curriculum Director Glenn Mitcham, and MMS Principal Amy Martin.
Leyko told ELi that in addition to conducting a thorough investigation, the district is also reviewing the Social Studies curriculum and keeping other promises made in June 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. That set of promises was discussed at this Monday evening’s School Board meeting.
In 2012, MMS students were asked to write about “the positives of slavery,” but at least one student declined.
“Mr. Matthew Christians has done this before and it was brought to the attention of administrators and nothing was done,” Akilah Jenkins-Brown, a former student of Christians, wrote to ELi on April 21.
Following up with ELi by phone, Jenkins-Brown said that when she had Christians as a teacher for eighth-grade Social Studies in 2012, the class began studying slavery during Black History Month. Christians asked the class to write about “the positives of slavery.”
Jenkins-Brown recalled that Christians made the announcement about the assignment at the end of class before a long weekend.
Jenkins-Brown told her mother about the assignment, and her mother suggested that perhaps he had misspoken or had been inarticulate while making a rushed announcement at the end of class. Jenkins-Brown’s mother told her that if the assignment was indeed to write about the “positives of slavery,” Jenkins-Brown should do as she saw fit.
Upon returning to school, Christians did ask students to write about the positives of slavery according to Jenkins-Brown, and she told ELi that she remembered feeling “angry” and “upset a little bit” because the assignment made “a dark part of history light.”
Jenkins-Brown and her classmates were given time to work on the assignment in class on Feb. 22, 2012, and she told ELi that she went through her textbook but “could find no positives.” She described the segment on slavery as “super small” and “off-putting.” She said it focused on family time, cornrows, and quilt-making among enslaved people.
Jenkins-Brown said she “tried but couldn’t do” the assignment and wrote that there were no positives of slavery. By her recollection, as Christians walked around the classroom and saw Jenkins-Brown had not written much, he asked her about it and directed her to look at the textbook.
When Jenkins-Brown told Christians she had looked at the textbook and saw no positives, she said Christians engaged her in what she described as a “back and forth” and told her that she can’t always write about what she agreed with.
Jenkins-Brown told ELi that Christians then called Jenkins-Brown’s mother in front of the class, but her mother did not answer. She says he then sat in front of the class and emailed her mother, copying then-MacDonald Principal Merem Frierson. Jenkins-Brown provided ELi with a copy of this email.
ELi has attempted to reach Christians but has not yet received a response from him. If we receive a response from him, this article will be updated.
Christians defended the assignment but later apologized.
In his email, Christians told Jenkins-Brown’s mother, “I decided to have the students support the positive aspects in order to increase awareness that some individuals were able to preserve dignity and culture despite the cruelty of slavery.”
He justified his decision by saying it was part of an effort to address the achievement gap by “incorporating black culture into the classroom.” He also noted that a curriculum standard was to “describe the resistance of enslaved peoples and effects of their actions” and the goal of encouraging critical thinking, including being “open to different ways of approaching a problem.”
Christians said he had considered letting students choose their position but opted to make them write about the “positives” for the reasons he had given. He concluded by saying “the purpose of this assignment was not to say slavery is good.”
Jenkins-Brown told ELi that her mother spoke to Frierson and expected Frierson to be more upset by the content of the assignment since she is a Black woman. According to Jenkins-Brown, Frierson told her mother she had to understand the position that Frierson was in. (Disclosure: Frierson is a former Board of Directors member of ELi.)
Reached by email, Frierson told ELi, “We took steps to promptly address the inappropriateness of the assignment, and spoke with Mr. Christians to ascertain the context and rationale of discussion regarding ‘the benefits of slavery’ with 8th grade students.”
She said that there were “no further incidents regarding assignment of inappropriate Social Studies assignments” while she was principal.
Christians gave Jenkins-Brown a verbal apology according to Jenkins-Brown, and she was given a different assignment to complete instead of receiving a zero for supposedly not completing the initial assignment. He also sent a written apology to her and her mother. Her mother was reluctant to make a bigger issue out of the incident in case it affected how Jenkins-Brown would be treated as a student.
According to Jenkins-Brown, there were only a handful of other Black students in her class. They checked in with her after the incident and said the assignment made them uncomfortable, but they didn’t want to say anything, particularly after Christians engaged Jenkins-Brown in a public back-and-forth.
Jenkins-Brown was disappointed to hear that apparently little has changed.
Looking back at the email she saved, Jenkins-Brown said that she was bothered to see that Christians used the achievement gap to justify issuing an assignment that was insensitive.
She reflected on her experience as a Black student in ELPS and said that many assumed that all students of color were in ELPS through Schools of Choice, not by virtue of living in the East Lansing community, which contributed to feeling different from classmates.
But mostly she was in shock that the same teacher had done something similar again.
It seems clear he had. ELi reached out to multiple students at ELHS to see if they recalled having to do assignments on “the positives of slavery” or asking themselves to imagine themselves as enslaved persons. Several did.
As recently as 2017, students recall an assignment similar to the one given this year.
One student wrote to ELi that, “I vaguely recall having to discuss the positives of slavery, but other than that I cannot recall any specific assignments. I asked my friends, and they were on the same page as me. To be honest, I think we all repressed a lot of the racial trauma we experienced in middle school.”
What is the district doing now in light of this information?
According to Superintendent Leyko, the district is “pursuing further investigation” and “would like to talk with students who may have relevant information or experiences to share with us and will do our best to identify and meet with these students.” (ELi is also interested in hearing from people who can shed further light for this reporting; contact us here.)
As discussed at Monday’s School Board meeting, the district will prioritize “review and evaluation of Social Studies curriculum,” an endeavor which is already underway.
Curriculum Director Mitcham told the School Board that he has contacted Ingham Intermediate School District (ISD) to begin curating a list of potential books for an improved curriculum. During the summer and fall, a committee will be put together to evaluate the list and cull it down to two or three options.
After the committee has completed that work, Mitcham said, teachers will pilot the materials in the classroom for several months. Findings will be presented to the Board.
Leyko followed up over email saying administrators pledge to “ensure that Black and brown parents and/or community members, as well as Black and brown students, are included on the review committee.”
Those involved in curriculum development “will identify and review lessons and activities around Black history that are racially sensitive and recognize and celebrate the contributions of Black individuals,” said Leyko.
At the high school level, the district is also working to create a course on Black history, which will be proposed to the Academic and Technology subcommittee with the goal of implementation by the 2022-2023 school year.
At Monday night’s meeting, Leyko made a presentation about where the district stood in taking action to meet its goals, outlined in this June 2020 letter, of achieving greater racial equity.
Leyko said that in 2019 the district began posting job openings on more sites to reach people of color. In 2017, just one of 17 administrators and 10 of approximately 240 teaching staff were people of color. Now, four of 18 administrators and 18 of approximately 240 teachers are people of color. ELi reported on this issue in June 2020 after we analyzed data from the district.
In June 2020, ELPS made the decision to end having a resource officer from the East Lansing Police Department in district schools. Money was redirected to hire two more student advocates – one at the middle school and one at the high school. Both are people of color, Leyko said.
Th district will also prioritize professional development for staff that focuses on racial equity and social justice.
“Our work this school year with the Justice Leaders Collaborative has been invaluable, and we are working on plans to have all of our staff go through The Core Course,” wrote Leyko to ELi.
At Monday’s meeting, Leyko elaborated what the social justice teams (earlier referred to as equity teams) will look like in each building. Each school will have two – one for personnel and one for the community. Two members would participate on both teams, and the teams would occasionally meet together.
The district will also continue to work on its racial equity policy. Members of the Policy Committee will meet in May after reviewing racial equity policies from other districts.