How Angry Parents Annihilated A 'Racist' Study Guide Given To Their Downey 5th Graders
A study guide featuring a page with the letters C-A-N-T spread across a map near the southern U.S. border sparked a cavalcade of phone calls into Downey Unified School District headquarters last week.
Several parents took to social media with complaints like: "Why the hell is Gallatin Elementary School in Downey teaching geography like this? Seems racist to me," and "Gallatin Elementary trying to radicalize our students."
Parents in the Southeast Los Angeles city, which is predominantly Latino, were upset with a supplemental geography printout that features "can't" as a mnemonic device for the Southwestern United States - California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas. The phrase "You can't just cross the border of the U.S." was printed along the right side of the page above a list of these states' capitals.
"This kind of stuff needs to f——— stop," said Jose, a Downey parent who, like other parents, did not feel comfortable giving his full name for fear of backlash against his child.
Jose apologized for using foul language, but said he was outraged and that the handout was an example of "old school prejudice and racism" that can impact children like his own.
Another Downey parent, Emily, said she saw a photo of the assignment posted on Instagram and immediately thought of her daughter, who attends one of the schools in the district.
"I was concerned that she had gotten something like that," Emily said. "I grew up here. I have a kid who goes to school here. It's scary." Emily was one of the parents who called the district office, where she said a representative told her they were handling it.
Jose, Emily and other parents in the district asked LAist to investigate how a third-party "racist pamphlet," as some described it, made its way into the hands of 5th graders at an elementary school in one of the most prosperous Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles County.
What we found was a series of checks and balances that failed all the way up until the parents got involved, and acted quickly to get the school district, and the website hosting the study guide, to respond.
HERE'S HOW IT WENT DOWN
- The 50 States and Capitals study guide in question was created by a teacher from the San Francisco area based on "some online materials." A five year old YouTube video with 755,000 views created by someone calling herself "Ms. Alexander" has similar content.
- The study guide was printed by a 5th grade teacher in Downey Unified from a third party website called Teachers Pay Teachers, a popular resource and marketplace where educators can buy and sell handouts and powerpoint presentations.
- It was not reviewed by the Downey teacher who printed it out as a voluntary geography study guide that was picked up by about a dozen or so children on their way out the door for the long Veterans Day weekend.
- Parents posted it on social media, prompting a flood of phone calls into the school and district.
- The district quickly withdrew the handout and is in the process of reviewing how its educators use third-party supplements.
- In the course of our investigation, Teachers Pay Teachers removed the offending study guide, which had been sold for $7.50 with a free preview version, also an option. Downey Unified also reported the study guide to Teachers Pay Teachers. The website says it relies on user feedback to regulate the millions of printouts it hosts.
HOW IT WAS HANDLED
Representatives for Downey Unified told LAist they acted quickly to bring in the parents of children who picked up the handout. The teacher, school and district apologized to the parents, and explained the mistake was not reviewing the handout before it was given to students.
"Obviously, the structural elements of this worksheet did not convey an inclusive environment," said Ashley Greaney, the district's public relations coordinator. " As an inclusive district, we absolutely do not condone any type of content that is not inclusive in nature."
According to Wayne Shannon, Downey's assistant superintendent of education, the school district cannot reveal details of the way personnel are disciplined. But he said that "teachers would be held accountable" for not thoroughly reviewing third-party educational material. Shannon also notes that many schools across the country use websites like Teachers Pay Teachers as a resource.
"We're not unique when I say we have teachers accessing third party websites to pull down resources that are going to work well with children," he said. "And roughly 99% of the time, we're right on point. But there's that gap where sometimes things go astray."
Shannon said the district, which employs roughly a thousand teachers, is being "very proactive" in getting the word out to its employees to "make sure that you are really reviewing what you are sending home with children" and to be much more careful with what they use in the classroom.
The general consensus among parents whose kids were directly affected by the errant handout is that "it was an honest mistake" by a respected educator, and that the aftermath was handled well by the school district. The majority of these parents did not want to go on the record to talk about the incident.
But other parents in the district, who saw photos of the problematic "CANT" page online, were worried that the incident would go largely unnoticed and that many more classes in California would continue using this handout.
"We need to talk about it," Jose said. "We can't be quiet about it. This is a big deal."
"It a perfect example of how this stuff is so normal, or else it wouldn't be happening in Downey," Jose explained, highlighting the fact that affluent Downey is an overwhelmingly Latino suburb often referred to as "The Mexican Beverly Hills."
Another Downey parent, Lisa, said she was upset with Teachers Pay Teachers for not vetting the assignment to begin with. "I can't imagine what's happening in other schools," she said. "How does a YouTube video become homework?"
HOW A YOUTUBE VIDEO BECOMES HOMEWORK
We reached out to a San Francisco area school teacher named Brian Louie, who is listed as the creator of the study guide in question on Teachers Pay Teachers. He declined to comment, but information on his Teachers Pay Teachers page said it was "inspired by some online resources."
A little bit of digging turned up several YouTube videos that take a similar mnemonic approach to the 50 states. They all appear to be riffing on a technique introduced into the world of billions of YouTube videos in the fall of 2014 by someone calling herself "Ms. Alexander."
In her video Learn the 50 states with Ms. Alexander, an unseen woman opens by saying, "I'm going to teach you some easy tips and tricks to help you remember the first letter of all the states in the United States."
You can only see a hand holding an orange marker over a large U.S. map. The first state she writes on is California.
"The very first thing we are going to start with is 'can't,'" Ms. Alexander says before writing C-A-N-T and then drawing a squiggly line tracing bottom edges of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. "This is the Mexican border," she says. "You can't cross the border without the right paperwork."
The rest of her video is filled with words and tricks, but none come close to the Mexican border message. In fact, most of the tricks in the video didn't make a lot of sense to parents who got to examine it. "Why is she drawing a chicken leg [on Kentucky]?" said one parent.
Another parent wanted to know why "CANT" needed to have the border message added to it. Several comments posted beneath the video make references to President Donald Trump's hotly contested border wall.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Despite all this, the "CANT" mnemonic trick in the video made it into printout form, and eventually the homes of Downey parents. The guide's creator said that by using it himself, "My students were able to accurately name and locate the states within weeks. Some of my students also made flashcards based on the slides."
No stats were available on how many copies of the guide were downloaded, although one customer on the website gave it a four-out-of-four star review on Oct. 19. "This was a great resource to use as my students were memorizing the states and capitals!" the review said.
A representative for Teachers Pay Teachers said they rely on this peer review process to report violations of their guidelines.
"We take resource quality and offensive content very seriously," Kristin Hodgson said in an email. "It's extremely important to us that Teachers Pay Teachers' resources make educators and their students feel respected and safe. If anyone becomes aware of TpT content that may be offensive, they can use our community flagging tool to report the resource to us for review."
Downey Unified Assistant Superintendent Shannon said they reported the problematic 50 States and Capitals as soon as they became aware of what was inside of it. LAist also forwarded a copy of the guide to Hodgson. In response, Teachers Pay Teachers said they had removed it from their site.
"To respond to the specific resource you shared, TpT's Marketplace Integrity team reviewed it against our Community Guidelines and removed it," Hodgson writes in an email. "We don't comment on the specifics of these investigations, so can't share more detail."
By this Thursday, a link to the offending study guide was no longer visible on the Teachers Pay Teachers website.
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