ARLINGTON, Va. (7News) — An Arlington Public Schools 8th grade student and his mother are demanding answers after they tell 7News a long-term substitute teacher forced him to pick up cotton with his face for a game.
Sidney Rousey is a Gunston Middle School 8th grade student, and said this happened last Wednesday. At that point, he felt pressured by his peers and the substitute teacher.
"We're supposed to put the Vaseline on our nose and pick cotton. I remember she asked for volunteers, and then everybody looked at me in the class," Rousey said. "[The teacher] was looking at me and forcing me to go up there to play the game. I didn't really want to, but I didn't want to get in trouble with the teacher. So, I went up there to play the game and I didn't really want to."
Rousey said he is the only Black student in that class.
His mother, Keisha Kirkland, said she immediately went to the school looking for an explanation. The two of them spoke only to 7News.
"I didn't know what emotion to bring out first. I didn't know whether to be hurt, upset, angry, mad. It was a whole bunch of feelings," Kirkland said. "I came right back to the school the same day, spoke with the counselor, the teacher, separately. I spoke with the teacher first, and the teacher was not willing to accept the wrongness. She wasn't willing to accept the insensitive of the situation. She just wasn't accepting his feelings and how he was hurt. She just wanted me to know they were having a whole lot of fun."
Kirkland said the substitute teacher told her that game was on a list of acceptable games to play handed down by the school district.
Rousey said he faced immediate backlash from the substitute teacher after his mother talked with her.
"She shut the door and she started, I would say, attacking me, saying, 'Am I a racist?'" Rousey said.
Kirkland continued: "She asked him in front of the class, 'Sidney, am I a racist?'"
She then talked with Gunston leaders. She said they were appalled by this incident, and told her they are investigating it.
"They immediately took him out of the class. They felt our pain. They were hurting for us. That's what I needed. That's what I needed for my son. I needed him to understand as a village, we all stand together as one. He didn't get that on Wednesday," Kirkland said.
7News reached out to Arlington Public Schools to ask if the list of acceptable games the substitute teacher mentioned exists, their response to the incident, and their policies regarding teachers accused of similar actions. A spokesperson released the following statement:
The activity, called “nose dive,” was part of a list of optional team-building activities for 8th grade Gunston students to foster collaboration. Gunston administrators held a meeting with the student and parent to discuss their concerns and are investigating what occurred and how this activity was presented to students by the staff member. The investigation is ongoing. Gunston Middle School is committed to fostering a learning environment that is inclusive, safe and supportive for all, and does not tolerate discrimination of any kind.
7News asked if this specific activity call for cotton, and how exactly is this a team-building activity when it appears only one student was participating.
"Other students participated. The activity featured a player from each team taking turns. Using only their nose, the players were challenged to move the cotton balls one at a time from one end of the table to a bowl at the other end of the table. The object was [to] see who could move the most cotton balls," said district spokesperson Frank Bellavia.
Bellavia sent another statement Tuesday morning.
"The activity was not part of a division-wide approved list. Furthermore, APS does not support these activities and will be promptly revisiting and reviewing them. The school will take necessary and appropriate actions to address this incident," Bellavia said.
This statement appears to clarify the "list of optional team-building activities" was a Gunston- or classroom-specific list, and not a district-wide list.
Right now, Rousey is taking the class in the guidance counselor's office instead of the classroom with the substitute teacher. He cannot drop out of the class, because he needs the credit to graduate into high school.
However, regret in taking part in the game is at the top of mind for him right now.
"I knew a little bit about cotton and Black people. At the time, I knew about it, but in the moment it's like I didn't know. Now that I realize it, it made me feel even worse for playing the game," Rousey said. "I knew this month was Black History Month, and I felt like people don't really care about our history. It makes me sad this happened to me on this month."
Kirkland said she is still waiting on answers from Gunston and school district leaders.
"We have a long way to go. We have a very long way to go. I don't think it will be over. I never would have thought in a million years that I would have had to be standing here," Kirkland said. "You don't judge a book by its cover. And for me to teach them this and this happens to him, it knocks down everything I try to carve out for all of my children. That hurts."
NAACP President Mike Hemminger told 7News the organization is meeting with Kirkland and her child, and they have called an emergency meeting for 5 p.m. Tuesday to discuss how the family would like the NAACP to move forward.