On Tuesday evening, the Flagler County School Board voted 3-1 to approve a list of personnel items–leave requests, suspensions, transfers, appointments, “non-reappointments.”
Among them: the non-reappointment of Abbey Cooke, one of the district’s more celebrated teachers–she was the 2017 Belle Terre Elementary Teacher of the Year. It was actually a firing. But by by categorizing it as a non-reappointment, the district took away Cooke’s right to appeal the decision.
“A non reappointment is not appealed,” Jewel Johnson, the district’s human resources director, said. “We work at the pleasure of the superintendent through the approval of the board. All of us do. So your contract is either renewed or it is not renewed.”
So ended Cooke’s 13-year career in Flagler schools (including a year at Imagine School at Town center), over a 14-second TikTok video she made of herself and some of her students, dancing to a somewhat raunchy song. The TikTok was unquestionably an error on Cooke’s part, especially when she’d been on the board’s radar for several years as one of the district’s most outspoken faculty members, openly and fiercely advocating for LGBTQ rights, and at times openly criticizing district policy or rigidity, to the displeasure of some board members.
Her firing was a surprise, and was not a surprise: Despite a stellar career with “highly effective” performance evaluations year after year, Cooke had been skirting non-reappointment all spring, then appeared to have secured reappointment, only for the TikTok video to trip everything up and open the way for the district to pounce. It did–mercilessly, if not necessarily fairly at every step.
Tuesday evening, several supporters appeared before the board to speak on Cooke’s behalf, as did she. It was not enough. Only Board member Cheryl Massaro voted against. (Board ember Colleen Conklin was absent.) The vote, which included acknowledgment of a critical teacher shortage, sent a chilling message to those who would challenge the board, or those who land on any board member’s hostile radar: the slightest misstep can and will be used against them.
During lunch period on May 11 Belle Terre Elementary Cook and a half dozen of her sixth grade students rehearsed then made a 14-second TikTok video, dancing to a clip from “It’s About Damn Time.” The song is by Lizzo, the ebullient Black, plus-size artist whose music The New Yorker describes as “blissful, sunny-side-up anthems, teeming with self-love and body-positive affirmations.”
But the song isn’t appropriate for sixth graders, at least not officially–not on an elementary school campus–even though Lizzo has huge appeal among tweens and teens. Nor were the six verses that made up the entirety of the TikTok clip a safe choice:
In a minute I’ma need a sentimental
Man or woman to pump me up
Feeling fussy, walkin’ in my Balenci-ussy’s
Tryna bring out the fabulous
‘Cause I give a fuck way too much
I’ma need like two shots in my cup
The words may be standard daily fare among students, especially as they enter those middle school years. In fact, one of the students in the TikTok wrote in her witness statement to the investigator that she didn’t think “anything bad about the song, because my mom let’s me listen and dance to that song.”
But the lyrics are also unquestionably in direct violation of school policy: obscenity, sex, drinking. As misjudgments go, Cooke’s was indefensible. Compounding the error, Cooke knew she was under the sort of district microscope more than most of the district’s 1,700 employees. But it’s never been her style to operate by the skin of her fears.
Within days of the TikTok going up, Jessica DeFord, the principal at Belle Terre, got a message from a teacher about the video–a teacher at Belle Terre who never had a child in Cooke’s classroom.
DeFord then spoke with a parent and Belle Terre Elementary teacher whose daughter was among the dancers in the video. By then Cooke had taken the clip down. But DeFord had received the clip, which was also disseminated to other parents of the children. The video, the person who forwarded it to the principal wrote in a witness statement, “portrayed students in a negative way.”
Whether in the public or private sector, employees’ social media blunders are as common as the common cold, but they tend to rise to the level of suspensions or firings only in the gravest cases–the teacher who makes light of the N word, the teacher who ridicules a student’s sexual orientation, the teacher who filmed himself drinking beer as preparation for the “idiots” he taught, and so on.
Cook’s case is more innocuous. She’s known to worship her students and is seen the same way by students and parents, as reams of testimony on her behalf attests. A typical example: “I had no idea how my little boy was ever going to be ready to make it on his own in middle school. Miss Cooke assured us from day one that she would support the students in any way possible that she would prepare them for the academic road ahead of them,” and she did, parent Shari Novek told the school board. “Ms. Cook has the unique and special gift of being able to unite and balance the classroom and the students. In a way many teachers are simply not able to do. Her students always felt loved and accepted.”
Testimonies on Cooke’s behalf could be summed up in the words Board member Janet McDonald used at Tuesday’s meeting, but referring to another teacher: “She is an award winning teacher and she brings back a lot of accolades and inspires our kids to do so much.”
The witness statements gathered by the district from the students in the video raised no objections or concerns, and one of them noted how they’d taken care to not associate the clip with the school: “We covered anything that had ‘Belle Terre’ or any information on it and made the video,” the student wrote. One of the students “wanted to be funny and crawl underneath the camera and out of it quickly. We were just having fun we didn’t think anything bad about it.” (All the students who appeared in clips had signed video and media releases on file.)
The student whose mother complained, however, noted in her witness statement that “the lyrics did have curse words and I think [inappropriate] language.” (She had misspelled inappropriate.) The students in their witness statements all noted that they were either in lunch period or during “free time,” so it was not during instructional time.
Cook acknowledged her error with unguarded sincerity, calling it “just a stupid, stupid mistake” as she pleaded her case through tears before the School Board Tuesday evening, while also noting just as accurately that the offense, her first in 13 years, “did not harm a child, did not cause any harm to a child.” (The students in the clip are as ebullient as the singer as they go through their moves.)
“I know I made a mistake,” Cooke told the board. “I apologize for that mistake. My punishment for that mistake was one day suspended without pay. However, I’m being double-punished for the same exact thing. Because I was terminated and then it was moved to a non renewal, which I can’t appeal, except to ask you not to approve that line item.”
The school district’s investigation initially had kept the reprimand in proportion to the offense and imposed the one-day suspension, unpaid. “Accordingly,” Robert Ouellette, the coordinator of professional standards wrote Cooke on May 27, “you are hereby reprimanded for enlisting the help of students in your class and posting an inappropriate video, which contained profanity and references to alcohol consumption.” (She had been placed on administrative leave with pay on may 24, pending the results of the investigation.)
The afternoon of May 25, School Board member Jill Woolbright wrote Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt and Board Attorney kristy Gavin, cc’ing Ouellette, to say she was “appalled to learn about and view” what she described as “the disturbing behavior of a classroom teacher in front of and with her students, 2. that you have received video evidence, and 3. that this teacher was not immediately relieved of her duties until the conclusion of the investigation.” (Ouellette first got contacted about the case on May 19 and started gathering statements on May 23, suspending Cooke on May 24.)
Woolbright then demanded of the superintendent and attorney “a complete report of what has been done to date, what information you have gathered, an explanation as to why the teacher was not removed, and what consequences this teacher receives.” Then she recommended that Cooke “be released from any further duties with Flagler schools.”
Gavin wrote Woolbright that the process was following its course in accordance with policy, and that Cooke had been suspended. The next day Woolbright again wrote the same trio, “When does it get reported to the DOE?” (the Department of Education). Ouellette wrote her that the district had 30 days to report such issues, following “detailed procedure.”
Tuesday evening, Woolbright described her role differently: “School board members do not make personnel decisions,” she said in her closing comments from the dais. “We make personnel decisions when they come before us for a vote like tonight. We did know as School Board members that there was an investigation going on, and that there are names on our list. That’s all we know. We’re not allowed to know the details of investigations for an event that does come before the board. That’s how the board works.” She continued: “I didn’t even know what the investigation was about, or the results of the investigation, until I was getting emails from the public and I went to the person that did the investigation today and had a discussion, so now I know. But I can’t share any of that. That’s personal.” (Actually, verbal conversations aside, it’s all public record.)
It isn’t clear when the second investigation began or what began it, only no parent had complained further, though Woolbright had made her position clear in the interim, raising at least the appearance of a board member influencing the superintendent’s decision.
Cook’s remaining TikTok account was by then, or within days of Cooke’s reprimand, behind a privacy wall. The district re-investigated her by looking at several of 49 TikTok videos on Cook’s account, none of which identifying her as a Belle Terre teacher.
Ouelette did not look at the clips as any member of the public could–the account was set to private, and required a follower to be approved for access–but through the account of one of Cooke’s students.
In one, Cook is heard stating, “this is your teacher from the set of ‘iCarly’ and I want you to know there is power and there will be school tomorrow,” apparently a reference to a day in April when the school was without power for several hours. (iCarly was a Nickelodeon sitcom set in a school and aimed at young teens. It was recently revived on Paramount+.)
Additional video clips, the second investigation states, included “Video of her empty classroom set to music showing a version of a gay pride flag, video of Ms. Cooke on split screen with an unknown male presenter whereby the presenter describes his disagreement with the ‘Don’t say gay’ legislation and gender identity prohibition, video of Ms. Cooke asking students in her class to discuss her most annoying comments, video of her asking students to tell her what she says in class often, video of unknown person stating their views regarding Roe v. Wade, video with Ms. Cooke discussing why she is sitting in a parking lot on a Friday night waiting for her subway.”
There were a few clips showing Cooke at school: one of them is a still portrait of her 2021-22 sixth grade class with hearts and heart shapes springing from the portrait. Another shows the classroom in a recess, something Cooke describes as “organized chaos: I love these kids.” Another clip shows students relaxing, with Cooke saying: “This is what it looks like after two hours of standardized testing, writing. Time to relax and unwind,” she says. A few other clips show students singing or dancing to harmlessly bland teenybopper music.
Cooke questioned the relevance of the clips cited against her, or the appropriateness of the district’s search for good reason: aside from the gay pride flag appearing in her classroom (a flag that’s appeared in numerous district classrooms, displayed by teachers or students), the wording of the investigation conflates the clip taken in the classroom with clips taken away from campus, where Cooke’s right to free expression–as long as it does not transgress professional standards–prevails: the district cannot keep her from, say, taking part in demonstrations against the “don’t say gay” bill anymore than it can legally keep her from expressing herself about one political candidate or another–or about Roe v. Wade.
But by the time the matter reached the school board, Cooke was out of options.
“It’s called the Social Media trap. And I think so many of us are getting caught up in it, and so are our educators. There’s no doubt about that,” Massaro, the board member, said. “We’re going to have to do better and making sure that people understand what it is and how to avoid conflict and not do things they should be doing, because it could lead into this type of reaction that we had this evening. So that’s just something that that we’re all learning.”
One TikTok clips from Abbey’s classroom had featured students silently waving as if goodbye at the camera as the voice of Robin Williams in his Mork and Mindy days says, to the melancholy tune of a few piano notes, “I don’t know how much value I have in this universe, but I do know I’ve made a few people happier than they’d have been without me, and as long as I know that, I’m as rich as I ever need to be.”