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Complaints Spur Developer To Recall Software

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Complaints by black parents about a computer simulation in which students play the role of slaves using the Underground Railroad to escape bondage in the 1830's have led a leading educational-software developer to pull the program from the market and to ask thousands of school districts to return or destroy their copies of the product.

The Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation this month sent letters notifying 5,000 school districts that it was voluntarily recalling the program, called "Freedom!'' The schools have site licenses for the software because they are members of a network of Apple II computer users.

The objective of the simulation, which is designed for students in grades 5 to 9, is for players to avoid recapture by slave masters while husbanding food and money for the trip north and avoiding "tracker dogs'' and punitive whippings.

Dean A. Kephart, a spokesman for MECC, said the unprecedented recall was precipitated when black parents in Merrillville, Ind., a predominantly white Chicago suburb, complained that the dialect used by characters in the simulation is demeaning and that the game denigrates the efforts made by slaves to obtain their freedom.

Mr. Kephart said it is difficult to know how many copies of the program are in circulation because the site licenses allow districts to make unlimited copies of the software.

Robert Schrenker, the superintendent of the Merrillville (Ind.) Community School Corporation, said that the software had been shown only to a small group of elementary school students to gauge their reaction and was not a part of the curriculum.

After some students complained, a group of some 25 parents reviewed the software and agreed the objections were reasonable, he said.

The software firm had earlier received similar, although less severe, criticism of the program from other users, and had planned to revise the product. Those plans are now on hold, Mr. Kephart said.

African-American Involvement

Mr. Kephart said that "Freedom!'' was extensively reviewed before release by many different people, some of whom were African-Americans.

In addition, Mr. Kephart said, the simulation was devised in part by an African-American, Kamau Kambui, who is an expert on the Underground Railroad. Mr. Kambui lived with descendants of the former slave Harriet Tubman, a "conductor'' on the Underground Railroad, as part of his extensive research for the project, Mr. Kephart said.

MECC, which was founded as a quasi-public entity by the state of Minnesota, became a private firm in 1991. It produces a line of critically acclaimed software programs, often with a multicultural emphasis.

Roughly 25 of MECC's products were included among the 550 programs in the cumulative edition of Only the Best, an authoritative review of educational software published by the Education News Service.

The recall of "Freedom!,'' Mr. Kephart said, "is not intended to send a message that we're backing off on our commitment to multicultural education.''

But while he said the company remains committed to producing software that reflects the history and contributions of minorities in American life, he also noted that the controversy raises "important questions about the nature of computer simulations.''

"This is a topic that needs to be explored,'' Mr. Kephart said. "But it's very hard to talk about African-American history and ignore slavery and the Underground Railroad.''

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