TOMS RIVER, N.J. – Pine Beach Mayor Lawrence Cuneo, who is also an eighth grade social studies teacher, told a New Jersey radio station Wednesday that he was demonstrating a “degrading and despicable” institution in American history when he made students pretend to be slaves.
In an email to New Jersey 101.5, Cuneo, 59, defended the lesson but expressed regret that anyone may have been offended.
“Slavery existed within our country and the lessons learned, even if uncomfortable, need to be told,” Cuneo said. “At no time was my intention to harm the sensitivities of any student. If this lesson did that, I apologize to those affected.”
In a social media post, a student complained that classmates were forced to “pick cotton and lay” on a dirty floor while “pretending we were slaves.”
As the students acted out the scene, Cuneo made a “cracking” whip noise over the students and kicked their feet, according to the social media post.
A spokesman for the Toms River Regional School District said the incident is under investigation.
“As we comb through and further investigate the details of the alleged incident, we are keeping in mind that our curriculum has evolved to include more hands-on, authentic activities,” said Michael Kenny, the district spokesman. “It seems initially clear that there was no ill intent but that better judgment should have been used with regard to the alleged instructional methods, particularly as it pertains to recognizing the sensitivities of all students.”
The district website lists Cuneo as an eighth grade social studies teacher at Toms River Intermediate School East.
According to public pension records, Cuneo has been a teacher for 18 years. He collected a salary of just under $73,000 last year.
He also collects a $2,500 salary as mayor of Pine Beach, where he’s in his third term. Cuneo has not responded to multiple requests for comment from the Press.
Teachers’ slavery lessons have come under fire across the country in recent years.
Last week, a student-teacher in Tennessee was fired after she asked fourth grade students to read and answer non-age-appropriate questions about “The Making of a Slave,” a 1700s speech advocating for slavery.
And in Connecticut, a teacher last month was suspended after casting black students as slaves in a play. Last year, a New York private school history teacher organized a mock slave auction where white students bid on black students.
At the same time, schools have been criticized for sugar-coating the horrors of slavery and its continuing effect on the nation, as chronicled in USA TODAY’s 1619 project last year.
Some schools have announced that they would bolster their teachings about slavery.
Follow Erik Larsen on Twitter: @Erik_Larsen.