Suburban students participate in Underground Railroad simulation: 'I was frightened'

It was supposed to be a lesson about history, but one South Holland family says a reenactment of the Underground Railroad went too far.

Sixth graders from McKinley Junior High have been taking this trip for several years and this particular reenactment has been done before, but this time one family says it crossed the line. Two teachers have since apologized. 

11-year-old Bailey Peterson says she was excited to go on the traditional 6th grade trip -- from South Holland to Lake Geneva for four days to visit The Nature's Classroom Institute. 

Bailey said it was fun, until the final night when they participated in what she and her parents call a "surprise simulation."

"Once they got outside in the woods they explained that they were runaways and that they were going to go on a journey,” Bailey said. “It was cold, it was dark, I could barely see my friends."

They were reenacting the Underground Railroad. Their teachers who were also on the trip acted as the bounty hunters, Quakers and the sheriff.

Bailey told her mom they were chased through the woods, threatened and told to sing for their freedom. 

"They were told to hide several different times, to lie about who they are, steal food,” mother Dawn Peterson said.

Peterson says she knew nothing of this activity, and now wants her money back and a promise from the school that this will never happen again. 

"I was confused, I was frightened,” Bailey said.

Superintendent Jerry Jordan says this simulation was listed in the packet provided to parents as an example of an evening activity, allowing students to "role-play history...playing the parts of slaves escaping with a conductor along the underground railroad."

"It was not our intent to put the kids in a situation that they are going to be traumatized or terrorized, it was a reenactment of history,” Jordan said.

This simulation is one of dozens of activities that the school can choose from. School officials say next year they will seek input from parents.

The Lake Geneva camp did not get back to our request for comment.

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