WAHPETON, N.D. — The superintendent of the Wahpeton school district said Monday, May 10, he doesn't want a recent classroom episode where students acted out events surrounding George Floyd's death to have a chilling effect on teachers and students tackling important subjects. He said the district is working on a plan for how it deals with diversity issues moving forward.
At a news conference Monday afternoon, Superintendent Rick Jacobson and other officials provided details about an activity that took place in a fifth-grade classroom after the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of Floyd.
Questions later arose about the activity among members of the community, and those questions reached the ears of school officials on May 3.
Elementary school principal Jacob Dodge said Monday he conducted interviews on May 4 with students and the teacher involved. Based on those interviews, he said, it appeared the class was talking about the Chauvin trial and Floyd's death when questions came up.
Those questions resulted in some students lying on the floor with their hands behind their backs, according to Dodge.
"It was being used as a teachable moment of how wrong this is," Dodge said, referring to how Floyd was treated by police, adding students were then asked to stand up and check their pulse so they could see how such a position affected their breathing and how they felt as individuals.
The activity then concluded, Dodge said.
On Friday, Jacobson said the teacher involved in the classroom activity was placed on administrative leave while the district investigated what occurred.
On Monday, he identified the teacher as Barb Michelson, describing her as a highly respected educator. It was unclear whether she was still on leave as of Monday.
Jacobson said he understood how an impromptu activity can arise in a classroom.
"Kids ask questions; they're inquisitive," Jacobson said, adding the episode prompted the district to work on a way to improve its approach to diversity issues.
High school English teacher David Woods said the district plans to analyze a number of factors that influence things such as hiring practices, professional development, behavioral discipline and teaching and learning.
What the district isn't looking to do is squash discussion of important topics, Jacobson said.
"We as a district have to figure out what can we do to take on those types of tough questions moving forward," Jacobson said, adding he doesn't want to restrict teachers and students from having conversations about important events.
"I really hate that teachers are going to be scared to have discussion and I fear that they might," Jacobson said.
At the conclusion of Monday's news conference, officials declined to say anything further regarding the classroom episode.