An Escambia County public school teacher resigned this week over what he characterized as racist behavior by a school district employee.
The teacher, Michael James, emailed a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis and Escambia County Superintendent Tim Smith in which he wrote that a district employee removed pictures of historic Black American heroes from his classroom walls, citing the images as being "age inappropriate."
Images that were removed from the bulletin board at O.J. Semmes Elementary School included depictions of Martin Luther King Jr., Harriett Tubman, Colin Powell and George Washington Carver, James said.
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"It really floored me," James told the News Journal. "I've been teaching special education for 15 years, and it just really floored me when she did that."
James chose the board's theme because the majority of the students and the residents in the neighborhoods that surround O.J. Semmes are Black, and he wanted to motivate his students with inspirational leaders they could easily look up to and see themselves.
James, 61, of Daphne, Alabama, sent his letter to the governor Monday night. He officially resigned from his position as an exceptional student education teacher at O.J. Semmes Elementary School on Tuesday morning.
His resignation came in the midst of a national teacher shortage, a day before the start of the new school year Wednesday.
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Superintendent Smith said teachers are permitted to decorate their classrooms with educational materials and he was unaware of any policies that would prohibit a teacher from displaying pictures of inspirational American heroes on their walls.
Smith said a full investigation of the incident, which he called an "anomaly," has been launched.
Charlie Crist, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor to challenge DeSantis in November, blamed the governor’s “culture wars” for politicizing Florida’s public schools.
“This is the sad reality of Ron DeSantis’s Florida — a teacher, in a predominantly Black community, comes into their classroom to see posters of historically Black American heroes, including President Obama, taken down for being ‘inappropriate’,” said Crist in a statement by his campaign.
“DeSantis’s culture wars are infiltrating every corner of our state, and it’s Florida’s students who are paying the price.”
Crist, currently a U.S. congressman from St. Petersburg, is running against Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fired for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Escambia County Public Schools spokesperson Cody Strother provided the News Journal with an official statement on behalf of the school district.
"Our office was made aware of this employee's resignation and his stated reasons for resigning very early this morning, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022," the statement read. "Around the same time, we were copied on an email written by this individual and released to the Governor's Office and various media outlets before we had any opportunity to investigate. We are now in the process of conducting a full investigation. If these allegations are deemed factual, we will certainly take corrective action, as it is our aim that all of our teachers feel valued and supported."
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The district has yet to confirm the identity of the district employee who James alleged removed the pictures from his classroom walls, but in his letter James stated the employee worked as a board certified behavior analyst for the school district.
Above the pictures of the Black leaders, a copy of the Pledge of Allegiance was pasted in the bulletin board's upper right hand corner, James said.
"Am I to believe Escambia County Schools employs those that dislike African Americans and are against swearing allegiance to these United States of America? Is there a dislike in anything that states 'One Nation Under God' in it?" James wrote, in his letter to the governor and superintendent.
James said he could not work for a school, or under the umbrella of a school district, that would hire people who would condone such behavior.
"I hate to say this about everybody in the staff or the leadership there, but something is not right," he said. "Something needs to be changed or fixed."
James previously taught at schools in Hawaii, Georgia and Alabama. It was going to be his first year teaching in Florida.
In his letter, he explained he recently purchased approximately $58 of school supplies with his own money at the Teacher Store in Pensacola.
"With these school supplies purchased, I spent several hours making a classroom bulletin board located behind my desk," he wrote.
On Monday, the behavior analyst and another behavior coach entered his classroom to help him set up the room.
"That is kind of unusual, but that's OK," James recalled thinking. "They came in, and we started moving tables around and swapping some out, and I had made the bulletin board a couple of days earlier."
As an ESE teacher, James was employed to teach students ranging in age from kindergarteners to fifth-graders. The bulletin board was on the wall directly behind his desk at the front of the class.
It contained about five to seven images of Black historical figures, as well as the Pledge of Allegiance. The individual pictures were about the size of a piece of paper, with short written passages on them explaining the achievements of each person.
"I was sitting down in one of the children's chairs cutting something out, and I turned around and saw her start taking something off the bulletin board," James recalled.
When he questioned what the behavioral analyst was doing, "She said something along the lines of it wasn't age appropriate. Something like that," James said.
James does not remember the woman mentioning race while taking down the photos. But he did note that she had also seized a picture of former President Barack Obama that he had placed near his desk because there wasn't room on the bulletin board.
"She picked it up and said, 'You don't need to put this up either,'" James recalled. "She said — I can't remember exactly what she said — but she said, 'the kid are too young' or something like that. It floored me. I thought, 'This is the first Black president.'"
The behavioral analyst's general demeanor and attitude made James feel like she had authority at the school, he said.
"I don't know who guided her or why she took that on her own. I've never seen that in 15 years — just completely take down my board — without asking or anything," he said.
In his brand new work environment, James didn't know what to say or who to go to in the moment.
"I didn't say anything else. I honestly let it go, but got to thinking about it and got pretty upset," he said. "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."
His lack of institutional knowledge at his new job and what he characterized as the "rundown" state of the O. J. Semmes Elementary School building compelled James to go straight to the top with his complaints.
James said the school is in poor shape and he believes that it is treated as a lower priority because many of the students are Black children from low-income families.
"I feel like sometimes they are taken advantage of and no one is speaking for them, and that school — there is no way with the Florida lottery — that it should look like that. I'm wondering what kind of equitable division of money is being done for that school compared to other schools in other wealthier areas of Pensacola or Escambia County," he said.
Currently, teachers are in demand everywhere, and James is not too worried about finding a new job.
"I'll be teaching somewhere in a month," he said. "I have excellent credentials."
Colin Warren-Hicks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8680.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Black leaders' pictures removed from classroom, Escambia teacher says