Florida teacher says he quit after the staff removed photos of Black leaders

Google Maps
·3 min read

A Florida elementary school teacher said he quit his job after another staff member removed his pictures depicting African American leaders.

Michael James, who taught at O.J. Semmes Elementary School in Pensacola, said he had posted images on a bulletin board depicting civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman, scientist George Washington Carver and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

He told the Pensacola News Journal that he wanted to display the images so the students, a majority of whom are Black, could see someone they could relate to.

James said it "really floored" him when a staff member removed the photos.

"I've been teaching special education for 15 years, and it just really floored me when she did that," he told the newspaper.

James did not name the staff member. He told the News Journal that he was setting up his classroom before the start of the school year with the help of two co-workers.

The bulletin board containing the images was behind his desk, along with a copy of the Pledge of Allegiance, James said. While he was sitting at a student's desk cutting something out, the staff member started removing items from his bulletin board.

James said the staff member told him that the images were not "age appropriate." He said she also removed an image he had on his desk of former President Barack Obama.

"She picked it up and said, 'You don't need to put this up either.' She said — I can't remember exactly what she said — but she said, 'the kids are too young' or something like that. It floored me," he told the newspaper.

James' account of the incident is vastly different from that of Escambia County School District. In a statement Friday, Superintendent Tim Smith said that a behavior analyst and a behavior coach were helping James set up his classroom for the roughly six autism students he would be teaching.

"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," Smith said. "The two ECPS employees engaged Mr. James in reconfiguring the room and making it more academically sound for his teaching assignment."

Smith said that the behavior analyst told James that his bulletin board was "awesome" but contained reading material that was too complex for his students. The behavior analyst also told James that the board needed to contain "state-required curricular materials."

"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," Snith said. "The Behavior Analyst asked Mr. James if he minded if the posters were removed, and, according to both ECPS employees (interviewed separately) he said, 'Yes, do whatever needs to be done.' ... At no time, in the presence of our employees, did Mr. James object. The posters were left in the classroom, for Mr. James to use as he so chose."

James told the Pensacola News Journal that because of the incident, he decided to resign.

Cody Strother, a spokesperson for Escambia County Public Schools, confirmed that it received James' resignation Tuesday. Strother said the district was also included on an email James sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis' office about the incident.

NBC News could not reach James on Thursday and has submitted a public records request for a copy of his resignation letter.