(CNN)An elementary school in Washington, D.C. is apologizing after a lesson in which fifth grade students of color were asked to portray enslaved people.
In a letter sent to families of students at Lafayette Elementary School, Principal Carrie Broquard called the assignment a mistake, saying that students “should not have been tasked with acting out or portraying different perspectives of enslavement and war.”
“At Lafayette, we believe in the importance of teaching painful history with sensitivity and social awareness,” Broquard wrote in the letter, dated December 23. “Unfortunately we fell short of those values in a recent 5th grade lesson.”
Fifth graders at the school had been studying the Civil War and Reconstruction in recent weeks, Broquard wrote. The students started the unit by reading an article titled “A Nation Divided.” The teaching team had students further engage with the material by having them either put on a dramatic reading, create a living picture or create a podcast in small groups, according to a separate letter addressed to families of fifth graders from the school’s fifth grade teaching team.
Some students of color were asked by their peers to play roles that are “inappropriate and harmful,” including “a person of color drinking from a segregated water fountain and an enslaved person,” the team wrote.
During classroom circles and small group discussions, Broquard said, some students said they were uncomfortable with the roles their peers had asked them to play. Others, she said, had been unsure how to respond or stand up for their peers who were uncomfortable.
“We deeply regret that we did not foresee this as a potential challenge in role playing so we could set appropriate parameters to protect students,” the fifth grade team said.
The lesson will not be offered in the future, Broquard said. CNN emailed her for further comment but she did not immediately respond.
District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) called the lesson inappropriate and said the school was responding to the situation.
“We acknowledge the approach to learning that took place around this lesson was inappropriate and harmful to students,” DCPS said in a statement to CNN.
“The school recognized its mistakes, addressed the matter with families, and is actively reinforcing values of racial equity across the entire school community. We support Lafayette Elementary as it nurtures young scholars to be models of social awareness and responsibility.”
How the school is responding
Broquard outlined a number of steps the school is taking in response to the lesson.
In her letter, she said students who were directly affected have been meeting with the school’s social emotional learning team and members of the administration to “process and talk through” the incident. The social emotional learning team and a racial equity committee at the school will work to ensure all assignments are “culturally sensitive and appropriate,” she wrote.
The staff will participate in a full day of training on equity and race in January, and the school plans to create a diversity and inclusion committee, the letter stated.
“As the leader of the Lafayette school community, I am distressed this happened and saddened our students were hurt,” Broquard wrote in the letter. “The voices of our students, their resilience and their compassion continue to inspire me to lead us all forward in a better way.”
Schools have stumbled on slavery
Schools across the country have made headlines in recent years after their lessons on slavery were perceived as inappropriate and hurtful.
In December, a teacher at a Missouri elementary school was put on administrative leave after a social studies assignment asked some students to imagine they worked in the slave trade and to “set your price for a slave.”
In September, a social studies teacher in Long Island, New York, told her students to write “funny” captions for images of formerly enslaved people, sparking outrage among parents.
An investigation by the New York attorney general’s office found that an incident in which a social studies teacher in the state singled out African American students and cast them as enslaved people in a “mock auction” had a “profoundly negative effect on all of the students present.”
And in February, an elementary school in Virginia apologized for cultural insensitivity after a physical education lesson featured a game that required students to imitate moving through the Underground Railroad.