School officials in Bridgewater apologized Thursday after a classroom photo that appeared to show two white third-graders holding a black child by leashes led to complaints and outrage.
In the photo, all three students and an adult are wearing 17th-century garb, and the two white children are holding straps attached to a gown being worn by a black girl who is kneeling on the floor.
According to school officials, the photo was shared by the classroom teacher with parents of her students. The photo was then shared on Facebook, and officials said they received a complaint Wednesday.
“Why is this OK??” wrote Roxbury activist Monica Cannon-Grant, who also shared the photo on Facebook on Thursday.
In a statement posted on the school department’s Facebook page, Derek Swenson, superintendent of the Bridgewater-Raynham Regional School District, said the photo was taken Oct. 13 during a lesson that third-grade students received Friday from the Plimoth Plantation historical museum. Bridgewater officials did not identify the school where the lesson occurred or return calls seeking comment .
In an e-mail Thursday night, Swenson declined to comment on the matter beyond his statement.
“Through our investigation, it was explained by the director of education from Plimoth Plantation that a portion of the lesson focused on 17th century attire — particularly the garments worn by parents, children, toddlers, and infants,” Swenson said. “Specifically the garment worn by toddlers commonly used tethering straps to assist them when learning to walk.”
Swenson continued, “We realize without this context added to the photo that was shared by the classroom teacher it could be perceived differently. Please note it was never the intent of the lesson to demean or degrade any one person or group.”
He said the school district “sincerely apologizes” to students, staff, and the broader community.
Plimoth Plantation, in a statement, apologized for “any misperceptions or concern that this may have caused by the lack of context offered when the photo was posted publicly.”
Rob Kluin, a spokesman for the organization, said the children in the photo volunteered to put on garments that reflected what was worn in the 17th century, and were “demonstrating a family including a mother and three children.”
The student who wore the garment with the “leading strings” was pretending to be younger than the others, he said. The museum, he said , did not intend to disrespect anyone “in practice or perception.”
“Without the proper context, the photo has understandably been misinterpreted and has caused distress for many,” he said . “We are deeply saddened by this, as our museum’s educational mission is to provide fun and engaging encounters with the history of the 17th-century Atlantic world.”
Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said in a phone interview that the photo was “pretty disturbing.”
“I can appreciate wanting to expose children to historical clothing and realities,” Hall said, adding that a school, “especially in a school district that lacks diversity in a way that the Bridgewater-Raynham district does, has a heightened obligation to think about the optics of things they do. Intentions are certainly important, but sometimes the impact of intentions are things to think through as well.”
The Bridgewater-Raynham Regional District is 87.4 percent white, 3.9 percent African-American, 2.3 percent Asian, and 2.7 percent Hispanic, according to state data.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Boston-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, blasted the photo in a statement.
“There is no conceivable way that the subjugation of children of color can be justified,” he said. “No educational value can be gleaned from racial insensitivity.”Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this story. Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.