Teacher Told Students They Were ‘Too Dark-Skinned’ To Play Lincoln

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Pam Nikolia was accused of telling two second-grade boys they couldn’t play the part of Abraham Lincoln because they were “too dark-skinned.”

United States

An investigation into a 2016 incident of racism by teachers in Marshfield, Wisconsin, revealed discriminatory practices have been going on for at least five years — with little consequences for the teachers.

In 2016, two teachers of Marshfield High School, Amanda Leurquin and Jennifer Smyth, were accused of violating the school district’s non-discriminatory policy while looking for students to act in the spring production of “The Sound of Music,” according to court documents. Parents said the cast did not reflect the student body's diversity.

When a court judge ordered the school district to release it records, it was found 2016 was not the only time a teacher discriminated against her students when casting them in a play.

In a similar incident in 2012, Pam Nikolai, a music teacher at Lincoln Elementary School was issued a formal letter of reprimand from then-principal Todd Felhofer after a parent accused her of telling two second-grade boys they couldn’t play the part of Abraham Lincoln because they were “too dark-skinned.”

Instead, Nikolai gave the role to a student who was absent from class on the day she asked for volunteers.

The documents reveal the school district launched an investigation into the incident with district officials interviewing eight students.

Five of the students, which included the two boys involved, said they remembered Nikolai telling them they couldn’t play the part because they were too “dark-skinned.” Another student said the teacher told them the boy “playing Lincoln should be white.” Two other students did not remember the statements but said they remembered the two boys volunteering to play the part.

However, Nikolai denied the allegations in an email to the school and claimed she told one of the boys, “You can’t” when he requested to read Lincoln’s lines because the period had ended. She said she was sorry the student took her “haste to get class ready to go for something completely different.”

She also said that while they were discussing historical accuracy, she asked whether to keep the word “homely” while referring to Lincoln’s appearance. Nikolai said the student may have misunderstood from that to make them think she was referring to their skin color when she said, “You can’t.”

However, another student said the teacher gave the part to the student who was absent because he was tall and black-haired, a statement that Nikolai also made while she was in the meeting with school officials.

The music teacher was told to closely monitor her words while addressing the class, ensure no instructional decisions were made based on the minorities in the class and to apologize to the boys involved in the incident.

That was the extent of her discipline.

Superintendent Dee Wells, who was hired in 2014, said the district only started mandatory staff training to combat racism and discrimination in 2017. No such training occurred in 2012.

She also said the staff would receive training following 2016’s “The Sound of Music” incident.

Details of the exact incident were not revealed in the documents released to the public to protect students’ identities. However, an internal investigation concluded the two teachers had violated the discrimination policy — but not intentionally. Rather their motive was to cast students who looked alike as the central characters.

Hence, Leurquin and Smyth were not disciplined.

Hopefully, the new training to combat discrimination does its job, otherwise if racism is a trend at this school district, countless other minority students may be traumatized.

Banner/Thumbnail: Reuters, Molly Riley

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