The Douglas County school district is investigating a complaint that a 7-year-old girl played a racist character in a school play.
In a video of the play, Anastasia Bertram can be seen holding up a sign saying, "Please go home" on one side and "Cursed is the man who integrates" on the other side.
Anastasia's parents said she was asked by her teacher, Jamila James, to fill the role of a white girl opposed to school desegregation during a March 2 play at Burnett Elementary School.
Her teacher told the parents Anastasia volunteered after another student struggled to learn the lines and follow directions. But the Bertrams said they had no idea until she was on stage.
They told Channel 2's Wendy Halloran they were not asked for parental consent.
"No, I’m gonna have a child stand on stage and tell black children to go away because they’re black. That is the option that we chose," said Anastasia's mother, Amber. "She’s 7, and you put her onstage and made her think what she was doing was OK? That’s not OK.”
Amber Bertram said she reached out to James on a platform called ClassDoJo telling her that she did not have parental consent to participate in the play and demanded an explanation as to why James thought this was acceptable.
“Ma’am, I understand your position, but we have several points to make: #1 Anastasia is 7 years old. She is taught to help adults as much as possible and to follow adult instructions unless it will physically harm her. In our home there are consequences for breaking these rules. So, what she saw was the teacher needing help (according to you) and so she volunteered to help (according to you). Then when given the lines she was simply following adult instructions. At 7 years old there was absolutely no way possible she could have understood the compromising position she was putting herself in,” she said. “Also, because this play was photographed and videotaped by several parents and with today’s technology those images of my child can easily be altered to make it appear as if my child is not in a play but simply holding a sign telling black children to go away. This is NOT an image I want portrayed of my child. Nor did she have consent to be photographed and videotaped in this play. The point still stands that this play did nothing but perpetuate the idea of racism and teach my child that the school sanctions her discriminating against anyone who doesn’t look like her.”
She furthered that by writing,
“Under no circumstances is it ok in a play or not for you to have my child (one of the only white children in the school I might add) hold a sign telling black children to go away because they are black.” She further punctuated her discontent by writing, “My husband and I are extremely upset, shocked and embarrassed by this incident.”
The messages reveal Bertram made it clear she was going to file a formal complaint.
The Bertrams pulled both of their daughters out of the school following the two-second incident, and claim they didn’t receive a response from school officials until Halloran got involved.
According to the Bertrams, James responded by saying, “It was never my intention to isolate or make any racial group feel bad. I apologize for this, thanks for bringing this to my attention.”
Amber Betram wasn’t satisfied with the teacher’s response so she sent her another message. The communication continued between parent and teacher with Bertram offering alternatives to honor Black History month. But Bertram said James deleted her profile and the communication ceased.
“She deleted my account. She just ignored the entire situation," she said.
The Bertrams said they continued to try to get answers and accused James of keeping the incident to herself.
Halloran made repeated calls and sent an email to the school Wednesday but received no response. While she was interviewing the couple, Douglas County School District Superintendent Trent North left Amber a voice mail message.
"I am calling to apologize. I was unaware of the treatment of your daughter," North said.
The Bertrams' reaction to the superintendent’s message was met with swift criticism.
"Only because he was informed we were talking with you and that this was gonna go on the air and he didn’t want it on the air,” Amber Bertram said.
That was too little, too late for the Bertrams, who contacted Halloran for help. While North was apologetic, they feel he was trying to avert the story.
Halloran later spoke with North, who confirmed he was launching an investigation and was insistent that he did not know about the incident.
North declined to speak on-camera but offered district spokesperson Portia Lake so Channel 2 Action News could get some answers.
“They were portraying one moment in history, one small two-second moment in history. It may not be appropriate but it happened,” Lake said.
Lake contended they’ve reached out to the family “numerous times” as recent as Tuesday but haven’t been able to get hold of them.
Amber said that’s patently false. The district has not provided Halloran with proof of its efforts to contact the Bertrams for verification sake. But Lake said that is the case.
The incident is under investigation. A decision has not yet been made if James will be disciplined.
Lake said school officials have tried to reach the Bertrams multiple times.
“An investigation has been launched. Again, we have reached out to the family numerous times as recent as yesterday," Lake said. "We have reached out numerous times even before this family alerted the media.”
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