Black Students at Bunnell Elementary Are Told Of ‘Early Grave’ If They ‘Clown’ Around and Don’t Perform

Flagler Live Article Posted Here

One student was in a language arts class. Another was in a history class. Another was in special areas. Each in turn was called out by their teacher and told to go to the cafeteria Friday at Bunnell Elementary for a presentation about raising their test grades. Nothing unusual about that: schools organize all sorts of assemblies to guide and encourage students to do better.

But not like this. Never like this. What these students had in common was one thing, and it wasn’t even low test scores. It was their skin color. They were all Black students. Only Black students.

They were summoned in two separate assemblies at Bunnell Elementary, one for fourth graders, one for fifth graders, interrupting their classes. They were told that if they clowned around, if didn’t perform well, they could miss out on college. They could end up shot or dead.They were shown a five-slide PowerPoint that told them that “AA have underperform (sic.) on standardized assessment (sic.) for the last past (sic.) 3 years.” AA are African Americans.

Astonishingly, with three errors in a single line, whoever wrote the PowerPoint would fail a basic English test: the problem at the school appears to start with its faculty, not its students.

Students were told that “We only have 32% of our students who are at a Level 3 or higher for ELA/Math.”(ELA is English Language Arts.) “We are supposed to have at least 41%.” The presentation’s “Solution” then commands the students to meet certain benchmarks.

Some of the better-performing students were paraded on stage as examples of what the others should aspire to. Before they were sent back to class, they were all paired off in a bracketed competition, two by two. They were given no choice about “competing against their opponent in both ELA and Math” (a poorly conceived competition that seems to perpetuate the message the presentation was ostensibly trying to address–that even at school, there are winners and losers). Eventual rewards were dangled before them: McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A.Their parents were never told. Not ahead of time, not afterward, either. Some of the parents found out by reading about it on social media, then asking their children about it.

“It’s kind of really upsetting to me,” Danielle, one of the children’s parents–who asked to be identified only by her first name–said today in an interview. “It’s hurtful. And I don’t think that a lot of people are aware of it. I feel like they should be made aware of it because this can’t happen again. It doesn’t matter which group. You could’ve taken all Hispanics, or just all the whites or Asians. You just don’t separate the kids. You know, it’s it’s outrageous to me.”

Three Bunnell Elementary parents interviewed about Friday’s assemblies say they were stunned, outraged and disappointed by the assemblies, and were left bewildered how a school in this day and age could single out students exclusively because of their color, regardless of the rationale behind the assemblies.

There appears to be no malice or ill intentions so much as clumsiness and sloppiness behind the assemblies, which were led by three school staffers (Mr. Hines, a certified teacher who is an “interventionist” and Exceptional Student Education faculty member, and Ms. Steed, a 3rd grade support facilitator, both of them Black. Inexplicably, intimidatingly, the person in charge of in-school suspensions, Mr. Gabriel, was also part of the introductions.)The idea, according to some of the parents who spoke with administrators, was proposed by Hines and approved by the principal–an extremely good-hearted, well-liked and new principal, Donnelle Evensen–who was in at least one of the assemblies briefly. The method and message of the assemblies, however, shocked parents and led one of the students in the assemblies to tell his mother, when he came home: “This school is racist.”

Evensen–who cheered on the assembly’s organizers in a Twitter post that day and drew sharply worded rebukes from commenters–did not respond to an email before this article initially published, nor was the PowerPoint presentation shown students provided, though School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin said it would be as soon as it was provided to her. Superintendent LaShakia Moore addressed the matter in an interview late this afternoon.

“Though the intention of the assembly came from a positive place, we could have done better with the delivery and some other things we could have put in place” ahead of time, Moore said. She stressed that it was more a matter of misjudgment than malice, and that communications with parents would explain what took place.

Bunnell Elementary is a C school, and is at risk of becoming a failing school if it does not improve. It is not a failing school currently, the superintendent said. Nevertheless, “the concern across the district is the performance of our students with disabilities and African-Americans. They are a subgroup we must continue to monitor and must continue to improve in,” she said. “We monitor our data on many different levels and we also monitor many different subgroups of students, so as Bunnell Elementary was reviewing their subgroup that’s African American, that subgroup has not been improving at the rate that was anticipated or expected. So the teacher came to the administration with the idea of an assembly. (Moore said she was relaying information as she knew it right now. She spoke moments before meeting with Evensen.)Earlier in the afternoon, a district spokesperson said Moore “understands the moms’ concerns about this,” adding: “Could that have been handled better? Most certainly, but from what she understands, this was good information.” In a statement Moore issued on Tuesday, she acknowledged the school’s serious misstep and summed it up with succinct elegance: “sometimes, when you try to think ‘outside the box,’ you forget why the box is there.”

If parents found out about the assemblies, they did so on Flagler Schools Parents, the Facebook page. The three parents interviewed for this article had spoken with their children independently. They relayed almost identical accounts of what took place.

“My daughter came home on Friday, like she normally does and you know she kind of mentioned, Oh, all the African American students had to go to the cafeteria today for an assembly,” one of the parents said. (She asked not to be identified.) “My ears went up because that didn’t sound right.” She started asking her daughter questions. Her daughter is in fifth grade. She’s a high performer, a 4 across the board (standardized tests are scored on a 1-5 scale, with 3 considered proficient, 4 considered high-performing, and 5 considered exceptional.) She’d been in the middle of class when her teacher called out her name. In the cafeteria, “she said it was all black students. There was no white students at all.”

They were told, as a group, that their scores were too low, with some specific percentages, that they had to get their grades up, and that they’d be challenged between each other to get better scores.

“It was mentioned that people of our color, if they’re not successful, you know, they get killed and go to jail,” the parent said. “This is things that are being told to these children. It was not a part of the PowerPoint, which was confirmed by the principal. She had no idea that it was said. It wasn’t what she approved.”

Then there was the parading: “They actually had children, including mine, with scores of 4 and a 5. They brought six kids on stage in front of all the other kids and pretty much said, they need their test scores to be like their classmates. So that is a target for being bullied. Kids bully kids for being smart, or thinking they might be better.”

When Nicole’s son got home, she’d heard about it and asked him. “First thing he said was, yeah, Ma, that school is racist.” He thought all Blacks and Hispanics were taken out of class. Her son told her he remembered the presenters saying that if they underperform, “they won’t go to college and if they don’t go to college, then there’s a good chance that they’ll end up killed, shot or in jail.” But if they did perform, they’d get McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A. “I honestly couldn’t wrap my head around it. I kept asking him, Are you sure?”Danielle learned about it from another parent who wanted to know if the same thing happened to her child. It did. Danielle’s daughter is in 4th grade–and passed all her tests last year. She was pulled out of social studies. “I asked her, I said, Well, were there any Hispanic people there? Any white people there? And she said, No mom, all black people.” The 4th grader is of mixed race.

“She said that they also said if you act like a clown and you don’t do good in school, you’re more likely to be subjected to being a victim of gun violence. Being in jail or in a grave, in an early grave,” Danielle said. She doesn’t dispute the higher proportion of Blacks as victims of violence, but very strongly disputes the school’s decision to impart that message to elementary age students, without their parents’ knowledge. And the reference to “clowns” is something else entirely–an evocation of offensive stereotypes that hark back to Jim Crow.

“I’m Black and I’m white, and we don’t really do the race–we don’t separate and identify people by their skin color,” Danielle said of her family. “I don’t feel even comfortable doing that in my own home. So I would not expect the school to do it at all, but which they did.” Danielle was even uncomfortable asking her own daughter about the day’s development. “I really wanted to keep it minimal. I don’t ever want her to start separating people by anything. I teach my kids everyone is a human being, everyone is to be polite and kind to each other.”

But she felt she had to speak to her daughter about it. “Unfortunately, actually. We had to have a conversation,” she said. “I felt like they were segregated. You literally took all of one race from 4th and 5th grade and took them away from their classmates and peers to have this conversation about them not doing well as a whole, when honestly, I pulled my own statistics, and there’s plenty of other kids from other races as well who did not do well. The parents should have been notified that this was going to happen, because they notify us for everything.”

But not this, which suggests that the presentation may not have been sufficiently vetted, tripping up a new principal in her first weeks on the job (though she’d been assistant principal there for a while). “Now the other kids who are sitting in the classroom, they know what’s going on,” Danielle said, “so what if they come back to class today, today’s their first day back and someone’s like, oh, well, you know, you’re not smart enough or, you know, you have to go to that meeting because you’re African American. It just raises so many red flags. It just was not well thought out. There was so many other ways that it could have been done, and they just dropped the ball.”Most certainly, Danielle’s daughter will not be taking part in the “competition.” She, too, had requested the PowerPoint, and was denied it by the administration–on the inaccurate claim that it was not a public record, since the matter was “under review” by the school board. In fact, it is only under review by the district–the school board has no role in the matter, not unless and until it meets and discusses it publicly–and the PowerPoint is not exempt from public disclosure.

But Danielle was otherwise very complimentary of the principal. “I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about her and I was really excited for her to be the new principal and she and talking to her she seems like still a great person,” she said. “Honestly she understands, I do feel that she understands that it was completely wrong in retrospect, she she knows that it probably should have been handled in a different way. But for me, again, a mixed race, I just don’t feel really confident that it would not happen again. ” She added with some perplexity: “I just don’t understand if you can bring this to a group of teachers, how no one could have thought like, hey, this might not be a good idea. These are very smart individuals. They’re all teachers, they’re principals. They’re very smart. They’ve educated themselves, they went to school, so that is what is kind of baffling to me. Because as soon as you tell anyone, like as soon as I talked to my mom about it, she was, like, are you kidding me?”

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