Middle School Gym Teacher Placed on Leave After Making Black Students Research & Play 'Slave Games'

Gym teacher made students research slave games
Fox 6

A middle school gym teacher is in hot water after she created a controversial school assignment that made her African American students uncomfortable. Jan Zehren, a teacher from Shorewood, Wisconsin, allegedly separated her students by race and then asked students to research games from their cultures. Some parents are calling the assignment racist, after the teacher told her African American students that she'd help them research "slave games." Parents are outraged at the school and are speaking out about the shameful way Zehren made their children feel targeted.

  • The assignment was given April 1 when Zehren divided her students by race and told them about her offensive idea.

    Shorewood Intermediate School seventh-grader MaHailey Stephens told reporters she was there when her teacher gave the controversial assignment, according to Fox 6. As she explained it, she and other students were allegedly separated into different groups based on their race by their teacher, who has been teaching gym for 36 years. 

    Zehren asked her students to research games based on their cultures, but it was what she specifically said to her African American students that made her young students uncomfortable. 

    "She told us to all go get into our groups and then she told us that she would help us research slave games," Stephens said. 

    “Me and the other black child just looked at each other confused like, ‘Did she really just say that?’ she told the Miami Herald

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  • When some students protested the shocking assignment, Zehren told them that they weren't allowed to not participate.

    “Ms. Zehren forced me and my partner to reenact slavery in front of the entire class,” seventh-grader Alexis Averette told the Root. “When we told her we were uncomfortable she told us we still had to do it.”

    Some students had been allowed to play dodgeball during the class, but others such as Averette and Stephens were told they had to reenact slave games; when the kids tried to propose a different idea, Zehren allegedly told them that it was too common. 

    It was only when students went home and told their parents about the assignment that they had a chance of defending themselves against their teacher's wishes. 

    “She came home and she told me she had to reconstruct games ever played during slavery,” Averette’s father explained. “Yeah, I was completely shocked. I knew it was a problem immediately when she said she was uncomfortable.”

    And Dr. Reshunda Stephens was also stunned. "I've never heard of such a thing. I never knew slaves had opportunities to play games," the mom said.
    She also divulged that her younger daughter, MaHailey, wasn't the first of her children to be assigned the offensive task. Her older daughter also had Zehren last year and revealed that she too had been asked to research "slave games" for homework.

    "This child was asked to be part of the colored club," she said.

  • Parents are speaking out about the issue and are asking their school to take action so their kids will never be uncomfortable again. 

    In a letter sent home to parents April 11, Bryan Davis, superintendent of the Shorewood School District, revealed that the administration had been alerted of the incident on April 3. 

    A teacher shared an activity with students on the subject of games from around the world. After the class on April 1, allegations were made that the teacher had suggested to African American students in the class that they research games that had been played by enslaved children. The administration became aware of these concerns on April 3. We immediately launched an internal investigation into the matter.

    We take these allegations extremely seriously. Throughout this situation, student safety and well-being have been our top priority. Our school counselor, school psychologist, Dean of Students, and the SIS principal have been providing support to the students who were directly involved in the incident. We wanted to make you aware of this development, and to reiterate that our students and families remain our highest priority.

    We are committed to providing an environment of inclusion in our schools. We will continue to assess the situation and ensure that we provide ongoing support to our students as we move forward. If your student has any concerns regarding this situation, please encourage them to contact their school administrators or school counselor.

    The school also told parents that Zehren has been placed on indefinite leave. 

    "How many more times do people have to feel uncomfortable until change happens?" MaHailey Stephens wondered.

    Her mother agreed that this was a positive step to protecting other kids from their teacher's insulting actions. "We have to work together, have those courageous conversations and provide support not only for the adults but most importantly for our children because it's not fair for our children to have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable," Reshunda Stephens said.