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Woman breaks down alleged classroom re-enactment of George Floyd death

“Why would you tell the community, ‘Hey this was a breathing exercise,’ and then put her on administrative leave? Make that make sense.”
Updated: May. 7, 2021 at 6:25 PM CDT
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WAHPETON, N.D. (Valley News Live) - Valley News Live is hearing from one of the women who first alerted school officials to an alleged re-enactment of George Floyd’s death that occurred in an elementary school classroom in the southern Valley.

A Wahpeton fifth-grade teacher is now on administrative leave while the school district continues its investigation.

Tracey Desjarlais’ five children do not attend Wahpteon Public Schools, but as a local business owner, she says she was approached earlier this week from a distressed mother who told Desjarlais about a concerning incident in her daughter’s classroom.

“Even now it bothers me,” Desjarlais said.

To get a better understanding, Desjarlais stated she wanted to start from the beginning and asked to speak to the young girl herself.

“I asked, ‘What grade are you in?’ She said, ‘5th.’ I said, ‘Great! Do you like your school?’ She said, ‘Yeah! But my teacher is a racist,’” Desjarlais said.

Desjarlais says the young girl then told her about a re-enactment of George Floyd’s death that her teacher had her class take part in.

“(The teacher) said, ‘We’re going to do this really quick.’ And she said, ‘Ok everyone, put your hands behind your back.’ And then she said, ‘Can you breathe?’” Desjarlais said. “And then (the teacher) said for us to stand up and put our hands behind our back even tighter and then she asked could we breathe?”

Desjarlais said the young girl told her the teacher then asked the students to kneel down on the ground and told the students to put their hands behind their back ‘even tighter’ to see if they could breathe.

“Finally we had to get up and put our hands around our throats ourselves and see if we could talk, check our own pulse, squeeze, could we breathe?” Desjarlais said of the student’s narrative.

Desjarlais says she’s since talked to Wahpeton Schools Superintendent Rick Jacobson who she says told her when interviewed, all 13 students in the classroom that day gave similar, if not the exact same account.

Jacobson also confirmed that detail with our reporter today in an email. Jacobson’s email also clarifies the district’s first communication to parents which described the alleged incident as a ‘breathing exercise.’

“When (Jacobson) sent that email out (he) effectively made me a liar, and (he) made those kids one too. (He) made it sounds as if it didn’t happen,” Desjarlais said.

A follow up email to parents from Jacobson later apologized, and stated if people felt their explanation was ‘vanilla and vague, that truly was not the intent.’

Desjarlais says an explanation or reasoning for the re-enactment was never provided to students, which is why she later took her concerns about the incident to social media.

“I just asked a question to this community and to the school: ‘Why would this be ok?’” she said.

However, Desjarlais’ involvement is something that has since been widely criticized within the Wahpeton-Breckenridge community. Desjarlais says many parents and community members have since accused her of ‘looking for her 15 minutes of fame,’ as well as accused her of making the entire story up. Desjarlais tells Valley News Live she has also received death threats.

“If 15 minutes of fame is the threat on my life, if the 15 minutes is the person who called me to tell me that they’re watching my daughter at school and threatening to take her out, that would be a lifetime of hurt,” she said.

Desjarlais says she doesn’t want the teacher fired or on administrative leave.

“There’s professional development that needs to happen. Not just for her, but for the school itself,” Desjarlais said.

She says now is the time to learn from mistakes and be better not only for today’s students, but for the future of the community.

“Why would this tear our community apart? Why wouldn’t this be the opportunity to say, ‘You know we need to wrap our arms around this and figure out something else,’” Desjarlais said.

Superintendent Jacobson did not provide any other details on this investigation today. Instead, he says he plans to hold a news conference on Monday afternoon.

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