By Corinne Murdock
A mother recently discovered that her sixth grader’s teacher slipped a politicized jab at Governor Doug Ducey’s opposition to school mask mandates into a homework assignment. Cocopah Middle School Language Arts teacher Susan Mulhern included a question asking students to check the grammar of a sentence asking when Ducey would impose K-12 mask mandates statewide. The question is reproduced below:
“What THREE rules would correct the following two sentences’ errors: ‘When will governor Ducey mandate the use of masks in schools?’ inquired william. I think it is time to begin that at cherokee elementary school.”
To clarify, Cherokee Elementary School had nothing to do with the assignment. The mother of the student, Joanna Lawson, explained to AZ Free News that Mulhern had only happened to mention the other elementary school in the homework question.
“[The statement] doesn’t reflect all of the beliefs of the students or their families. It’s no place for politics or personal opinion, and it creates divisiveness,” observed Lawson.
Lawson told AZ Free News that this homework assignment was just one of several issues they’d experienced.
Last week, Scottsdale Unified School District (SUSD) forced Lawson’s son to quarantine after being listed as a “close contact” with an infected student. This occurred prior to SUSD instituting its mask mandate. After missing four full days of instruction, Mulhern’s first response when Lawson’s son returned to class was to email Lawson that her son was “falling behind.”
The Language Arts teacher also claimed that Lawson’s son hadn’t turned in a certain assignment. Lawson responded with proof that they had – and received no response from Mulhern. Instead, Mulhern reportedly singled Lawson’s son out in class the day he’d returned from the forced quarantine.
“He came home that same night and burst into tears. He told me that she’d singled him out in class for falling behind,” recounted Lawson. “He feels this pressure, and what’s worse, it triggers a lot of what is happening during the COVID lockdown and when we were trying to do this stuff from home.”
Lawson’s son also recounted how Mulhern told students that day that they needed to mask up because “coronavirus lives in your nose.”
Lawson, a single mother, described to AZ Free News how school has become a looming burden for their family. She explained that the four days of in-person education lost has a ripple effect on the rest of her son’s education.
“Not only is he behind those four full days of instruction – then he’s behind on a quiz, a project. It compounds, and I’m feeling the weight of all of that here,” explained Lawson. “I’m also trying to divide my attention between a fourth grader and sixth grader between working, while making dinner, while doing laundry, and all of the things that we’re doing as parents. It’s really disheartening.”
Lawson explained that her family is new to this school this year, and wasn’t aware of the district’s quarantining policies. According to Lawson, Mulhern told her that students were expected to keep up with their schoolwork during forced quarantines if they weren’t “actually sick.”
All of these incidents in the first few weeks back to school has Lawson questioning whether her family will continue to be part of SUSD. She told AZ Free News that the public schools they’ve experienced are nothing like what she’d experienced growing up.
“This has me really doubting whether I should keep my sons in [SUSD],” said Lawson. “They’re the ones at the end of all of this that will suffer. This does not feel the same as the elementary school I went to as a girl.”
It appears from Mulhern’s summer reading assignments that politicized educational material isn’t a new endeavor for her.
One of the assigned course readings, “The Perfect Shot” by Elaine Marie Alphin, is a murder mystery that grapples with social justice issues like racial profiling and systemic racism. The syllabus’ synopsis emphasizes that one of the protagonist’s Black peers was arrested only because he was Black, and hints that the justice system is unfair to minorities.
“Someone murdered Brian’s girlfriend, Amanda. The police think it was her father. Brian isn’t so sure. But everyone he knows is telling him to move on, get over it, focus on the present. Focus on basketball. Focus on hitting the perfect shot. Brian hopes that the system will work for Amanda and her father. An innocent man couldn’t be wrongly convicted, could he? But then Brian does a school project on Leo Frank, a Jewish man lynched decades ago for the murder of a teenage girl – a murder he didn’t commit. Worse still, Brian’s teammate Julius gets arrested for nothing more than being a black kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. Brian can’t deny any longer that the system is flawed. As Amanda’s father goes on trial, Brian admits to himself that he knows something that could break the case.”
Another assigned reading, “If a Tree Falls During Lunch Period” by Gennifer Choldenko, pointedly criticizes the whiteness of the protagonist’s new school, and the lack of diversity because everyone there looks white.
A third assigned reading, “Crossing the Wire” by Gary Hobbs, glorifies illegal immigrants and border crossings.
Lawson said that the district has responded to her concerns about the homework assignment. On Monday, Cocopah Middle School Principal Nick Noonan promised to meet with Lawson to discuss the issue.