NJ teacher cleared for slavery lesson that allegedly included cotton picking, whip-cracking noises
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A New Jersey middle school teacher has been cleared of any improper behavior after a controversial lesson on slavery that allegedly included students pretending to be slaves picking cotton while he made whip-cracking noises in the classroom.

Lawrence Cuneo, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Toms River Intermediate School East, was cleared by district officials late Thursday after an investigation was launched following a student’s social media post, The Ashbury Park Press reported.

“The district has concluded its investigation into a complaint alleging that an Intermediate East 8th-grade social studies lesson on slavery was ‘degrading’ to students,” district spokesman Michael Kenny said. “We have determined that it was not teacher Lawrence Cuneo’s intention to offend his students; rather, the purpose of the instruction was that this appalling but nevertheless real facet of our nation’s history more fully resonate with students.”

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Kenny added that the administrators are working with Cuneo and other teachers to “revisit the delivery of instruction” to ensure lessons about slavery are mindful of students’ sensitives.

A student took to social media earlier this week to accuse Cuneo of teaching a “degrading” lesson on slavery, claiming that classmates were forced to "pick cotton and lay" on a dirty floor while "pretending we were slaves."

Cuneo, who is also the mayor of Pine Beach, was accused of making “cracking” whip noises and kicking students’ feet, according to the student's post obtained by the outlet.

"It's good to be informed about slavery but making us clean and pick cotton and pretending to wip [sic] us? Are you nuts it's 2020 not 1800 get it right," the student wrote. 

Parents and students defended Cuneo in comments to Patch.com and said the description of the lesson was misleading. 

Lisa Nuernberg said her child, who was in the class with the student who made the complaint online, said it was described as a “fun learning experience” that “got them up and out of their seats.”

"There was never, ever kicking or any type of violence," Nuernberg said. "It wasn't promoting racism of any sort."

Former students said the classroom activity was optional and sought to teach them about how slaves were held in slave ships.

Treniti DeBruycker, a freshman at Toms River East who had the class with Cuneo last year, said the teacher asked for volunteers who would be comfortable participating in the activity. 

"He would tell us this is how they were transported [to America] and he would explain how they were treated," she said. "He brought in freshly picked cotton that had seeds, and had us separate the seeds and sticks and debris. It had to be as clean as possible," DeBruycker said, clarifying that Cuneo would point out if it was not. 

Techniques educators have used to teach lessons on slavery have come under scrutiny in recent years for being insensitive, particularly toward students of color.

Last month, administrators at a Washington, D.C., elementary school apologized for a classroom exercise that assigned students of color to portray slaves.