High school class assignment about Derek Chauvin trial sparks controversy

WYNCOTE, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- A class assignment at a Montgomery County, Pennsylvania high school concerning the Derek Chauvin trial has sparked a measure of controversy.

A recent criminal justice class assignment at Bishop McDevitt High School in Wyncote asked students questions about the trial of Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee into George Floyd's neck, killing him. A jury found Chauvin guilty of all charges last week.

"I got a text (about the assignment)," said Tim, who is a parent of a student at Bishop McDevitt. The family is not using their last name or the student's name out of fear of repercussions to the student for speaking out.
The assignment asked students to answer ten questions.

These were the first two:

  • "It is said that the death of George Floyd was due to the amount of drugs in his system that then affected his heart. The cop Derek Chauvin aggravated the issue by putting a knee on Floyd's neck. Should Chauvin have been charged with murder if he did not directly kill him? Why or Why not. Must explain in at least 5 sentences."

  • "Chauvin did not follow protocol and had a knee on Floyd's neck for way longer than necessary. Floyd was resisting arrest, so why is Chauvin still considered breaking the law through negligence? Explain. If you don't know what negligence is then look up the word."

The assignment upset a number of students. The teen's parents feel that the assignment was written with a bias towards Chauvin and against Floyd.

"You can't discuss something that's so fresh. And then you don't have facts in there, you just want people to answer your opinion," said Tim.

"It was just questions about the teacher's opinions," the student's stepmother said.

"This teacher has placed her political views in the classroom and she is manipulating her students with it," said Kimberly Jones, the student's aunt.

The student sent a message to the teacher. Her family read the email to Action News, saying in part, "I feel as if the questions asked are highly insensitive. I am uncomfortable reading let alone answering the questions provided."

Correspondence posted by the family on social media shows the teacher responded by saying, "I'm sorry you feel this way. It was just an assignment to have you critically think from all perspectives. I understand if you do not wish to complete the assignment and would rather take the 0."

The student's family, however, said earning a zero on the assignment wasn't an option. They wanted the assignment to be taken away or at least reworded.

"The teacher came back with a response, 'I'm sorry you feel that way. I guess you'll take a zero.' That's when I stepped in," Tim said.

After multiple unanswered calls to the school, the family posted the assignment on social media.

They said they were blocked from accessing the class on PowerSchool, which allows parents and students to view assignments and grades.

The family said, after the social media post started gaining traction, the school's principal called to talk about rectifying the situation and asked them to take the post down. The family has declined to do so.

Action News spoke with University of Pennsylvania political science professor Dr. Rogers Smith who said he sees how the assignment could be controversial.

"Some of the prompts are clearly written from a pro-Derek Chauvin perspective, others are not," said Smith.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia declined Action News' multiple requests for an interview. However, they released a statement that read:

"A handful of school families contacted Bishop McDevitt High School administration late last week to voice concerns regarding portions of an assignment in one class section designed to analyze press coverage following the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial. School administration immediately communicated with those families after reviewing the assignment in question to apologize and discuss a plan of action moving forward to address the concerns. Those families with whom school administration was in contact expressed that they were pleased with the planned resolution."

Tim said he hasn't received an apology.

"They never reworded anything (in the assignment)," Tim said. "I haven't seen anything that was reworded. They haven't talked to me about anything else since then. So that statement is completely false."

As part of a restructuring by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Bishop McDevitt is scheduled to close permanently at the end of the school year.

Students who opposed the assignment have been given another assignment, but the family said the school shouldn't miss what they believe is a teachable moment for the teacher who created the assignment.

"If the teacher is willing, I think she should be given another opportunity to learn," said Jones.
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