Escambia County Public Schools system has concluded an investigation into allegations made by a former exceptional student education teacher that a district employee removed pictures of historic Black American heroes from his classroom walls.
In a statement released Thursday, school district officials refuted the allegations made by the teacher, Michael James, and claimed there were "inaccuracies" in his account of the incident.
James, a former O.J. Semmes Elementary School teacher, submitted his resignation to the school district Tuesday after emailing a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis and Escambia County Superintendent Tim Smith Monday night.
In his letter to the governor, James alleged he had been told images depicting historic figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriett Tubman that he had attached to a bulletin board in his classroom of were removed from the wall by a district employee who said the pictures were "age inappropriate."
Escambia County Public School releases statement on investigation
"We'd like to clear up some inaccuracies in the claims made by our former employee, Mr. Michael James," the school district's statement read.
According to the school district's statement, two district employees came to James' classroom to assist him in getting his room set up for the first day of school. One of those employees was a board certified behavior analyst and the other was a behavior coach.
"Mr. James's teaching assignment for 2022-2023 was to be a very small unit (4-6 students) of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) students," the statement read.
"Mr. James's room was, at that point, set up in a more 'traditional' classroom configuration, with rows of desks facing the front of the room, which is a wholly inappropriate use of space for a group of students like the ones he was assigned," according to the statement.
The behavior analyst and coach "engaged" James in "reconfiguring the room and making it more academically sound for his teaching assignment," according to the district.
"During the course of this action, one of the employees asked Mr. James where his teaching area was going to be," read the district's statement. "He indicated a kidney-shaped table directly in front of the bulletin board displaying the Pledge of Allegiance and the African-American luminaries."
The behavior analyst told James that the bulletin board directly behind his teaching area had to be dedicated to state-required curricular materials that he would require to teach his specific students, according to the district.
"To be clear, due to the nature of this specific population of students, it is critical the instructional materials be within their line of sight during instruction, for the purposes of student focus and retention," read the district's statement.
"The Behavior Analyst observed his bulletin board was 'Awesome,' because of the history tied to it, but the language and reading levels on the posters were too complex for this particular group of students," the statement said.
When asked how James had replied in the moment to a question about if he minded pictures being removed from the bulletin board, both the behavioral coach and behavioral analyst recalled James saying, 'Yes, do whatever needs to be done,'" according to the school district.
Both the behavior analyst and the behavior coach were interviewed separately as part of the district' investigation into the incident, the district said.
"Had Mr. James objected at that time, or had he raised his concerns with school administration, we believe this situation could have been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties," read the district's statement. "The instructional materials could have been displayed appropriately, and Mr. James's display could simultaneously have been honored. We were surprised these basic communicative steps were not taken by such a veteran teacher."
According to the district, the posters were left in the classroom for James to use as he so chose.1
James stands by his account of events
James' account of the event, in which he alleged the pictures of Black heroes were taken down without explanation of why they were inappropriate, garnered statewide attention, including from U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist who attributed the incident to "culture wars" initiated by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Discussing the incident with the News Journal on Tuesday, James said he had initially let the situation go, but became more upset the more he thought about it and decided to go straight to the superintendent and the governor.
"I could have just sent it the principal. But things need to get done. A lot of times people can just sweep things under the rug," he said.
The News Journal reached out to James on Thursday afternoon for additional comment on the school district's findings, and he responded with his own written statement.
James said he took issue with the district's depiction of his classroom setup as being a "wholly inappropriate use of space" for the students he was assigned to teach, noting he was still in the process of setting up the room the behavior coach and analyst came in.
James reiterated the behavior analysist and behavior coach never once referred to state standards as the reason behind the removal of the posters depicting famous Black Americans.
"There was never any mention of dedicating the bulletin board to state standards. Not one word even similar to this was mentioned," James wrote. "The bulletin board I prepared was fully inline with state standards for this population and it’s pure diversion to state otherwise."
He said each of the posters had a picture of a famous person and an accompanying written description of the person depicted in the imagine, and James took umbrage with the district's statement that the "language and reading levels on the posters were too complex."
"The content on these famous Black men and women was going to be read and discussed, so I knew some couldn’t read it," James wrote to the News Journal. "With that said, Autistic children are some of the most intelligent and talented children I’ve worked with over these past 15 years. They are often more academically advanced than general Ed students.
"Yes some in my class could read the statements under the pictures and at the very least taught to read it," he continued. "That is what teachers do."
James wrote of his "disappointment" that school system staff had chosen "to use diversion" as a way to protect the district's leadership.
James has made controversial and headline-grabbing statements before.
As a former 2020 mayoral candidate in Sylacauga, Alabama, James called for the public hanging of people who are convicted multiple times of crimes related to the dealing of drugs.
James said Thursday his stance on executing drug traffickers has not changed.
"So many of my kids and their families — so many of my kids have been abused because their families have been on drugs — over the 15 years I've been doing this," James told the News Journal, on Thursday, referring to the ESE students he has taught over the years. "I'm pretty hardcore about drug traffickers. If a drug trafficker is convicted a third time, then they should be put to death whether it's by hanging or firing squad."
Colin Warren-Hicks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8680.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Escambia school district refutes teacher story on Black heroes photos