Arlington family seeks $10M over classroom cotton picking game
by Karina Elwood
The family of an Arlington middle school student is seeking a $10 million settlement after they say their son, the only Black student in the class, was forced to play a game involving cotton picking.
The demand letter centers on an incident that happened in early February when Sidney Rousey Jr., an eighth-grader at Gunston Middle School, said a long-term substitute teacher in his French class forced him to play a game that involved putting petroleum jelly on his nose to pick up cotton balls.
Since speaking out about the game, the letter alleges that Sidney has experienced a hostile learning environment, been isolated in school and bullied. The letter sent to Arlington Public Schools on Tuesday requests a $10 million settlement for the “the emotional, social, and physical harm suffered.”
“No child should have to endure what Sidney has experienced since February 8, 2023. Sidney’s parents and family have had to navigate this trauma with their son and his siblings,” the letter reads. “APS cannot undue the past, but it can work to remedy its failures.”
Sidney’s mother, Keisha Kirkland, said in an interview that she was overjoyed that the demand letter, which requests payment for damages to settle an issue before taking it to court, would force the school division to acknowledge the difficulties her son has experienced since he raised concerns about the game.
“We didn’t raise him to hide in a cupboard, we raised him to stand up for himself,” Kirkland said. “And that’s exactly what he did.”
APS spokesman Frank Bellavia declined to comment on the situation, but the school division has previously said that the “nose dive” game was an approved team-building activity for Gunston eighth-graders “to foster collaboration.” Schools Superintendent Francisco Durán said at a school board meeting in February that school administrators were investigating the situation and that the game would be removed from the approved activity list. Durán also said he instructed the school division’s diversity office to further review “any instructional activities that are taking place to make sure they are culturally sensitive.”
“I, as superintendent, and all of us on this dais have an expectation that instruction in APS is inclusive and culturally sensitive to the diversity of all of our students,” Durán said at the school board meeting. “We have made some steps to improve diversity, equity and inclusion, but clearly there is much more work to do. I’m very disappointed that this has happened and that we continue to see these types of things in our schools. When we see this we need to listen more to our students and our families.”
According to the demand letter, when the teacher called for volunteers to go first in the “nose dive” game, no one volunteered and instead students “turned their attention to the lone Black student in the class: Sidney Rousey, Jr.” The letter says that Sidney did not want to participate in the game and felt like he was coerced into a situation and only participated because he worried he would get in trouble for not playing.
Since the initial incident, the letter said that Sidney was removed from his French classroom, and now takes the class online in the school library.
Former Virginia lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax, who is part of the legal team representing Sidney and his family, said in an interview that the substitute teacher was initially allowed to continue teaching at the school but has since been removed. Bellavia declined to answer questions regarding the teacher’s employment at Gunston.
“GMS continues to treat Sidney as if he engaged in wrongdoing; the administration laid the foundation, and the school community has followed suit,” the letter reads. “Sidney rightfully raised this issue; he blew the whistle on a racist incident at his school. APS retaliated by bullying Sidney, and it continues to teach other kids the lesson that protecting and advocating for your needs will be swiftly and promptly punished.”
Fairfax said the family has not yet filed a lawsuit against the school division and are hoping to settle before taking full legal action.
“The harm has been done. We are not the problem,” Kirkland said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Fairfax said that they’re hoping the situation not only can change Sindey’s situation, but also can bring systemic changes to the school division. The letter outlines a series of other controversial incidents including the middle school’s namesake of George Mason’s Gunston Hall, where there were hundreds of enslaved people; a Yorktown High School banner that seemed to arrange student photos by race; and a separate cotton-growing project at Campbell Elementary School in 2019