As millions of students begin the semester online, a number of schools have terminated contracts with an online learning company following reports that some lessons included racist and sexually suggestive content.

Examples posted online by activists and confirmed by Kansas City-based Acellus, a learning company that contracts with about 6,000 schools, include suggestive language such as “sweetie lips” and a controversial illustration in a lesson about Harriet Tubman. 

At least four elementary schools in Hawaii were among the first to cancel contracts. In August, parents and community members posted images and video on social media and an online petition, saying they showed examples of content that caused concern.

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Aliamanu Elementary School at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam decided to drop Acellus after reports of “inappropriate and racist content” that spanned course subjects and grade levels, Principal Sandra Yoshimi wrote in a letter sent to families. 

One lesson posted by activists depicted one animal character asking a pig in make-up why she’s called “sweetie lips,” to which the pig blushed and replied, “Don’t ask. We’re not even going there.”

Another lesson asked students, “Osama Bin Laden was the leader of what terrorist group?” One of the multiple-choice answers was “Towelban.” Another lesson describing Harriet Tubman’s escape from slavery was illustrated with an image of a masked bank robber.

The Hawaii Department of Education said it has used the content for 10 years and didn’t receive any complaints until the recent campaign.

All the issues cited on the petition and identified by Acellus’s users – so far totaling 12 learning modules –  now have been fixed in the system, Acellus founder Roger Billings told USA TODAY.

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Billings called the allegations against Acellus “radical thinking by radical people.”

The company, he said, is being wrongly accused of having racist and sexist content, and some of its material is simply outdated. “It is, in fact, similar to textbooks in popular use,” he said, even though some of their content may be dated.

Acellus has an editorial board that does a full sweep of new content before it publishes each week, Billings said. 

For some schools, the termination of their contracts with Acellus occurred weeks before the online school year began. For others, like La Mesa-Spring Valley School District in San Diego, the change occurred just days before school started.

District administrators read an article about the Hawaii schools’ decisions, and within the afternoon had called meetings and contacted Acellus, said Deann Ragsdale, an assistant superintendent at La Mesa-Spring Valley.

While the company confirmed the content had existed in the program and that it would be changed, “we didn’t feel that they took the issue seriously,” Ragsdale said.

Ragsdale said the district included Acellus only as a supplement to its online learning program and had used it as a part of its homeschool program for the past two years.

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Peoria Public Schools in Illinois recently came under fire for a question on an Acellus module that asked school kindergartners to label families. Among the questions asked, according to local news outlet WEEK-TV, was: “Which photo has a dad?”

The two photo answers, according to the outlet, included what appeared to be a Black woman and child in one picture and a white man, teenage girl and boy in the other. 

“This isn’t a little glitch, this is a big glitch,” Peoria school board member Daniel Walther told WEEK-TV. “That’s certainly not my feeling of how you define a family. It perpetuates a racial discrimination thing,” apparently referring to a stereotype of absentee Black fathers.

Peoria schools still plan to use Acellus, district spokesman Thomas Bruch said. The district appreciated Acellus’ quick follow-up with Peoria schools and the company’s efforts to get more feedback on its lessons, Bruch said.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Online school: Acellus’ COVID virtual learning axed by some districts


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