On Sept. 28, a parent picked up her son from Wadsworth Elementary and heard him describe how Stacey Smith, a fifth grade teacher, told the story of “this little Black boy” she knew when she taught in Chicago.
The boy didn’t have much. Smith, the child recalled his teacher saying, bought the “little Black boy”–a phrase she used repeatedly, according to the parent’s retelling of her son’s recollection–clothes and a bike, and that the boy told her not to come to his neighborhood because she was white and that Black people would kill her. The bike was stolen, and the boy’s parents were murdered, so he had to be raised by his sister.
The parent was incensed that the story was told, and that it was told in math class. She complained in writing to the school district, saying Smith had made such statements to students as “you kids are privileged to be here.” The parent called that statement “disgusting,” “unwarranted and racist.” (Public education of course is not a privilege but a right, and the accident of birth is not privilege but chance.) In a discussion with a district official, the parent later said that the story Smith told could inhibit a white classmate of her son’s from coming over to play at his house, for being afraid.
Smith has been teaching for 19 years. Flagler schools hired her in August 2006. She was Wadsworth Elementary’s Teacher of the Year in 2017.
The district’s Office of Professional Standards launched an investigation of the allegation. The Professional Standards Committee met on Nov. 18. On Dec. 3, Smith was informed that a “preponderance of the evidence” supports the allegation that Smith “acted inappropriately and/or unprofessionally in the conduct of” her professional duties, according to the letter Robert Ouellette, the coordinator of professional standards, issued her.
“Accordingly, you are hereby reprimanded for the lack of professional judgement used when you told the students in your class a story about an African American child living in Chicago under distressed circumstances. This story was not appropriate for the students. and not relevant to the grade level curriculum,” Ouellette wrote. He told Smith she had “violated the Principles of Professional Conduct for the Education Profession in Florida and School Board Policy,” which requires teachers to exercise good judgment and “not intentionally expose a student to unnecessary embarrassment or disparagement.” Ouellette warned that any such unprofessional conduct in the future could result in further disciplinary action or her dismissal. The matter was referred to the state Department of Education’s Professional Practices Services for review and possible investigation.
Aside from the written reprimand, Smith was required to take “diversity and sensitivity training.”
Smith has filed a grievance over the reprimand and, according to School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin, “there will be a determination from Assistant Superintendent [Bobby] Bossardet on whether the current disciplinary action remains, whether it will be lessened or completely overturned.”
In her interview with Ouellette, with others present–a union representative, Wadsworth Principal Mary Kate Parton, District Human Resources Director Jewel Johnson–Smith appeared to blame the child who had first told the story to his mother, and claimed the child had apologized for “making up the story,” according to the investigative summary of the conversation with Smith. However, numerous students had corroborated the student’s account of what Smith had told the class.
Smith said the student was mad at her because he’d gone to the bathroom during the math lesson and she told him he could get notes of what he’d missed from a classmate, “and this upset” the student. To explain why she told the story of her experience as a first-year teacher in Chicago, she said it was part of her social studies unit taught earlier about understanding other cultures and “how does location affect the way people live.”
“Ms. Smith stated the story she told to the class was about the culture shock she felt as a first-year teacher in a Chicago inner city school as part of program through Notre Dame University,” Ouellette summarized. “Ms. Smith stated her purpose for telling her story was to provide students an understanding of how the area was culturally different. Ms. Smith stated this story she told was aligned with the essential questions. Ms. Smith stated that she never referenced race during the telling of her story to the class and that student statements that reference race as part of the story are not accurate because this [story was told to] share about culture differences as found in the text book’s lesson.”
The teacher during the investigative interview said students asked questions, one of them about whether she had a favorite student. “Ms. Smith stated she told the class she did have a favorite student, a beautiful African American child,” Ouellette reported. She then went on to tell the class how she selected the boy’s name from an “angel tree,” the type of gift-giving tree for poorer children at holiday time and that she bought him a bike. She said the boy told her “it was not safe for her to come to his neighborhood so his grandmother did come and pick up the bike from school.” At one point in the story she told of how she’d been in the parents’ pick-up area when a car backfired, causing the same boy, who was with her, to react protectively. She said she then went on to “teach the lesson about the culture of the Iroquois Indians.”
In a subsequent email to the same investigators, Smith again summarized what she had intended. “I was showing love, respect and gratitude,” she wrote. “Teaching of color or judgement of the culture was never the focus, the only time color came up was when I said [redacted] was a beautiful African American boy. The focus was our PURR attribute, Understanding Differences in Others and how location affects the way people live, which led us into our lesson on how the Native Americans found strife living amongst themselves and how they formed red towns and white towns.”
She added: “I would never speak poorly about someone’s culture or upbringing as I believe and was raised that you do not know what people have been through and it is not our place to judge.”
By then Ouellette and the Sara Ashman, an assistant principal, had met with numerous students in Smith’s class to hear their account of the story. Most recalled it and corroborated it in the main, if with different details. Most remembered hearing that the “beautiful Black boy” had just two articles of clothing. But most related the story as Smith going to the neighborhood to drop off the bike and the boy telling her not to “because people hate the white race if they come to where African Americans live they end up basically getting shot,” as one student put it. There were different stories about why or how Smith had discovered that the boy’s parents had been killed, with some of the students saying they were on drugs, they hadn’t paid for their drugs, or they were still in the house. In one case a student recalled it as Smith having to go to the police station “when she saw the parents were dead.” They all remembered the stolen bike. They also recalled Smith saying “she had taught in horrible places and that we are lucky to be where we are,” or her telling the class “how blessed they are to live in a town like this.”
In sum, there was no question that an apparently quite detailed and graphic story about the Black boy was told, that the color line was a theme, and that it left an impression on the students.
In the course of the investigation Ouellette documented that several years ago the parents of African-American children had had difficulties with Smith. Fred Terry, an assistant principal at Wadsworth, recalled the issue six or seven years ago, but not in its details, not having kept notes of the meeting going back that far. But he recalled a heated parent conference involving the parents of two students in Smith’s class, and that in the end both students were transferred to another class.
The parent who made the initial complaint about Smith drew criticism, both from the investigators and other parents, for discussing the matter on social media and using an email list of parental addresses to disseminate her own thoughts about the issue, which the investigators cautioned her could taint the process. The parent said she would stop doing so. The investigation also notes that Smith herself, according to a different parent’s report, asked a child why he had been summoned to the front office. “Parent stated a concern that Ms. Smith prompted the class to not say anything if they were asked,” according to a statement by the school nurse, who had been informed of the matter by phone by the parent.
The child who initially reported the story of the boy in Chicago was transferred to a different teacher. Smith is “currently listed as an active, classroom teacher,” a district spokesman said today.