Mother Says Teacher ‘Exploited’ Child

Vicki Smith, AP, Dec. 7, 2006

The West Virginia Human Rights Commission is investigating charges that an elementary school teacher used a biracial kindergarten student as a prop to illustrate differences in skin color and ethnic backgrounds during a world cultures class.

Rhonda Bennett, a preschool teacher at Peterson Central Elementary School in Weston, is also accused of telling schoolmates that the child had been adopted—a fact the family of the 5-year-old girl says she did not yet know.

Joseph Mace, superintendent of Lewis County schools, also has refused to return phone calls and e-mails from The Associated Press but acknowledged the incident to a local television station last week.

The Human Rights Commission supplied a copy of the family’s complaint Wednesday after the AP filed a request under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

A copy had been shown to school board members two weeks ago, but it was retrieved from their possession after about five minutes, said board President Paul Derico.

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Derico said the school board has taken no action against the teacher because it is waiting for a recommendation from the superintendent.

The complaint, which does not name the girl or her family, says the incident occurred in mid-September, when a teacher’s aide removed the girl from her regular classroom.

The child told her mother that evening that she had sat on Bennett’s lap while the teacher and other students talked about her skin color.

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Bennett allegedly told the mother she had taught the lesson before, and that the girl did not seem upset by it. The teacher said the lesson was intended “to show that we all are alike, but we have different skin, eyes, hair, nationalities, etc.”

The principal also said the lesson “has been taught in this manner for years” and had his approval, the mother wrote. “He further stated the teacher had brought Chinese children up in front before, and nobody ever had any problems.”

The 43-year-old mother, who is white, said race has never been discussed in her home, and she was never asked if her daughter could “be used for show-and-tell.”

“It is not the lesson in dispute; it is the manner in which my child was ‘exploited.’ This incident has led to questions from my child such as, ‘Why am I different? What is wrong with me? What color am I?’” she wrote.

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