Uptick in racial incidents drives proposal to require schools to teach African American History

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- In wake of an uptick of racially insensitive incidents at schools, two Democratic lawmakers want to require African American history to be taught in all K-12 classes. 

Rep. LaKeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee) and Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) introduced the proposal, which would require the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to develop an African American history curriculum for all public, private and charter schools. 

“A lot of the time the stories in K-12 education starts and ends with enslavement when it comes to African American history,” said Myers. “Slavery was over in 1866 but we don’t talk about the period of reconstruction in the lens of those who were formerly enslaved.”

The proposal comes after a handful of incidents at schools across the state where teachers, and in some instances students, have been tied to racially insensitive comments.

Last month, a sixth-grade class at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie received an assignment that asked students how they would “punish” a slave. In 2019, a Shorewood Intermediate gym teacher was accused of suggesting African American students should research games played by enslaved children as part of a dance unit. Most recently, students were disciplined at the Burlington Area School District following investigations into racists incidents.  

“We need to make sure we are educating people about the horrific harm that’s happening in America to Black people right now, and I think it’s important that we teach our own history and fix that,” Taylor said.

The push for change comes on the heels of a similar bill passing the Legislature to incorporate lessons on the Holocaust and other genocides. The bill would require it to be taught at least once in grades 5-8 and again in grades 9-12.

Supporters of the bill understand teachers may already have lessons on the Holocaust, but they believe it should be a requirement across the state. 

“We developed a platform for teachers to pull lesson plans from all around the world on the Holocaust so we can give them the resources to do what they do best,” said Mark Miller, chair of the Holocaust Education Resource Center in Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee Jewish Federation found anti-Semitic incidents increased 55% between 2018 and 2019 and jumped 329% since 2015.

“I think the need for it speaks for itself,” said Samantha Abramson, executive director of the Holocaust Education Resource Center in Milwaukee. “It’s part of a much larger problem we are seeing in our county with hate and antisemitism, it’s all on the rise.”

Abramson also noted that many incidents are under-reported and occur more frequently on social media platforms, such as the Baraboo High School prom photo that went viral showing a group of boys holding up their arms in what looked like a Nazi salute back in 2018. 

The Holocaust proposal passed the Senate and now awaits approval in the Assembly. Sen. Taylor tried to make a change to the bill to include lessons on the slave trade, but the effort failed. Right now, Taylor and Myers' bill to incorporate African American Studies is still working to add co-sponsors.

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