(CNN)Students at an upstate New York high school were given a writing assignment about whether Derek Chauvin should be granted a new trial over the murder of George Floyd because of questions about one of the jurors.
School district investigating high school assignment questioning if Derek Chauvin deserves a new trial
Chauvin was convicted on two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter in April for kneeling on the neck and back of Floyd and could face up to 40 years in prison for second-degree murder, up to 25 years for third-degree murder and up to 10 years for manslaughter.
A high school English teacher at Saugerties Senior High School in Ulster County, 30 miles north of Poughkeepsie, New York, gave a journal assignment about the former Minneapolis police officer's case to a class of ninth-grade students on Friday, May 7, Kirk P. Reinhardt, Superintendent of Saugerties Central School District told CNN on Thursday.
A student, whom the district did not identify, was upset by the request which contained questions about whether juror Brandon Mitchell was impartial. The teacher contacted the principal and the assignment was immediately revised, Reinhardt said. Other students in the class were given an opportunity to voice what they were feeling about the assignment as well, he said.
A photo of juror Brandon Mitchell wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt that read "GET YOUR KNEE OFF OUR NECKS" surfaced recently online. Mitchell said his uncle posted the photo on social media but said he didn't remember owning or wearing the shirt, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The photo was taken at the 2020 March on Washington, which Mitchell said he attended because "'it was a good opportunity to be a part of something,'" the Star Tribune reported. Before the trial, Mitchell was asked whether he had participated in any of the demonstrations against police brutality that took place in Minneapolis after George Floyd's death. Mitchell said he answered no.
Some commentators have suggested the appearance of the photo could help lay the groundwork for Chauvin's lawyers to appeal the guilty verdict.
News of the essay question about the juror's impartiality caught the attention of parents within the district and copies of the assignment spread on social media and in private parent Facebook groups, Sakinah Irizarry, a parent within the Saugerties school district told CNN.
The teacher, whom the district hasn't named, asked their students to respond to a writing prompt in state Regents exam style that included information about Mitchell's participation in a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
In the assignment, "meant to develop critical thinking skills and challenge students to back their claims," the superintendent said, the ninth graders were asked to use phrases like "it is evident," "it is clear," and "it is obvious" when responding to the question: "Should the Derek Chauvin case be retried because of Brandon Mitchell. Why or Why Not?"
"We strive to create a school environment where all students feel safe, seen, heard, respected, and valued equally, so even one student feeling uncomfortable because of this assignment is one too many," Reinhardt said.
The unnamed instructor, who has been teaching in the district for 28 years, has been "reassigned within the district" while the situation is further investigated, Reinhardt said.
"We will be reviewing our curriculum and our policies through this lens and having discussions with our staff, students, and community," he said. "This is hard, but necessary work and we are all still learning. We acknowledge that we might get things wrong as we journey forward, but we know we must do better and are working to do so."
Sakinah Irizarry, a parent of two younger children in the district who are not at Saugerties Senior High School, says she's been advocating for diversity and inclusion within the district for several years and felt she should speak up as a Black mom of two children.
She told CNN she wants this incident to be about learning. Irizarry posted a copy of the school assignment publicly on her Facebook page to share what was being asked of the high school's students.
"There have been some calls saying, 'People shouldn't be having these discussions in school,' and I'm like, schools are exactly where these discussions need to be had, but they need to be had in a constructive and forward-thinking way and absolutely not with lies," she said. "When facts become up for debate, then we've really lost the focus of what all of us, the children, educators and community are there to do."
"I don't think I'm doing anything any different than a lot of what other Black mothers do," she said. "And also what mothers do, try to protect their kids. In my view of what is protection it's not just my own, it's this community that I've lived in for 17 years. It's all of the children in this community that my children will grow up around."
In a letter to the members of the district's diversity committee, the Saugerties school board and administrators, Irizarry expressed her profound disappointment over the assignment and the district's response.
"This assignment was not a thought experiment on how to present either side of an argument, it was instruction in how to refute objective truth, couching a lie in the language of absolutes to support your forgone conclusion," she wrote. "That assignment flies in the face of the concept of news literacy, and teaches young people, who naturally have strong senses of fairness and justice, to not trust their own eyes and their own hearts."