A Florida teacher quit his job on Aug. 9 after he said a district employee removed pictures of Black leaders from his classroom bulletin board without permission.
School district officials say the posters were taken down with consent from the teacher because they did not meet standards and needs of the students.
Michael James was almost ready on Monday, Aug. 8, for his first day as an exceptional student education (ESE) teacher at O.J. Semmes Elementary. It would be his 15th year teaching students with disabilities. For the last several days he said he had been attending faculty meetings, buying school supplies, and organizing his new classroom at the public school in Pensacola.
But before the first bell of the school year even rang, James submitted his resignation.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the kids,” James, 61, told McClatchy News. “It’s about somebody standing up and making changes for these kids.”
James told McClatchy News that two district employees, one a behavior analyst and the other a behavior coach, entered his classroom to help him prepare it for students. He was going to be teaching four to six children on the autism spectrum, according to the school district.
After moving around some desks and chairs, James said he was cutting out decorations for the wall. He claims he noticed the behavior analyst taking down a bulletin board, which James had just put up, without asking him. It had posters of Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver and other Black historical figures, James said.
“They kind of came in – and I’ve never experienced this before - and kind of took over,” James said. “It floored me that she started taking it down.”
James said that when he questioned her, she gave no explanation other than a “short blurb” suggesting it wasn’t “age appropriate.”
He wanted to create a bulletin specifically of Black historical figures for inspirational purposes, James told McClatchy News, because he had learned most of the students at O.J. Semmes were Black.
James said the behavior analyst also took down a copy of the Pledge of Allegiance on the same board and referenced a poster of former President Barack Obama on the table that he had not yet added.
“She picked it up and said, ‘You don’t need to put this up,’” said James. “And I thought, where’s that coming from? “The whole thing really rang poorly after I thought about it again and again.”
The next morning, James said he sent notice of his resignation to the school, which followed a complaint letter describing the incident to Escambia County School Superintendent Timothy Smith and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“Am I to believe Escambia County Schools employs those that dislike African Americans and are against swearing allegiance to the United States of America?” James wrote in the letter.
McClatchy News reached out to the governor’s office, which said it will “await the determinations from the District” to issue a full response.
Escambia County School District said it investigated the incident.
“The Behavior Analyst informed Mr. James the bulletin board directly behind his teaching area needed to be dedicated to state-required curricular materials,” a statement sent to McClatchy News said. “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.”
The district said that both the behavioral analyst and the behavior coach reported asking permission to take down the posters and James agreed.
“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,” the district claimed. “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 added that the posters were replaced with “alphabet charts that are primary instructional materials for ASD students.”
James called the school’s statements a “diversion” and said that his posters were “in line” with state standards and that his work was replaced with one poster, leaving the rest of the board empty.
“It was crazy because it was like total silence, like she was on a mission to take that down,” he said. “She didn’t say anything about it being awesome. Not one word.”
The district said that both employees were “astounded” by James’ account.
“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,” the district said. “The instructional materials could have been displayed appropriately, and Mr. James’ display could simultaneously have been honored. We were surprised these basic communicative steps were not taken by such a veteran teacher.”
James said that another former Escambia County teacher, whom he did not identify, messaged him on LinkedIn after the incident to say she “felt the same discriminatory racial and socioeconomic biases.”
In 2021, as NorthEscambia.com reported, Superintendent Smith issued an apology for a required teacher training video about race in the classroom that caused controversy.
In its statement, the school district said its compliance office has attempted to contact James “several times” after his resignation, but has not heard back.
“It is our greatest aspiration at ECPS to foster an atmosphere in which teachers, and all employees, feel valued and supported,” the district said. “We are also resolved to honor all races and ethnicities and the valuable contributions their members have made to this great nation.”
James said he has tried to return the district’s calls twice and added that he plans to get a new teaching job in another state.
“There are some real serious problems in education,” said James, “and it’s important to find an administration, a school system that has the kids in mind.”