For the second time in 24 hours, Interim Flagler Superintendent LaShakia Moore has issued a statement addressing the segregating of Black students in an assembly at Bunnell Elementary last week, where the students were told they were a “problem,” that they had to raise their test scores, that they would be paired off in competition against each other, and that they would be rewarded with fast food if they performed.
Contrary to her written statement on Tuesday, today’s video statement by Moore was more forceful, more clearly recognizing the breadth of the problem–as her statement on Tuesday had not–and twice included an explicit apology.
The superintendent met with faculty, parents and community members in and around Bunnell Elementary in the last 24 hours. The difference between the two statements reflects the substance of those meetings and suggests that the superintendent is rapidly coming to grips with the first and most serious crisis of her young tenure as interim superintendent, a crisis that by today had reached the pages of the Washington Post.
While still evolving, Moore’s response to the crisis–inquiring, then accessible, then visible, and now assertive–illustrates in real time an ability to pivot and change tone to attempt to match the gravity of the issue rather than get entrenched behind a single, defensive message, as organizations with poorly managed messaging or leadership sheathed in skinner skins often do in the face of a crisis. Whether that will be sufficient in the face of parents’ outrage is unclear.
Moore issued the video statement a day before she is to go before the School Board, on Thursday, for a three-hour interview in her candidacy to be the permanent superintendent. (See: “School Board Will Hold 3-Hour Interview of LaShakia Moore for Superintendent, But Hopes You Won’t Attend.”)
On Tuesday, there was no indication that those who led the assembly and the school’s principal would face disciplinary actions. That has changed. A district spokesperson today said that the issue is under investigation by the district’s Office of Professional Standards, and may potentially lead to disciplinary consequences. Moore did not address the investigation in her statement.
“Though no malice was intended in the assembly, it was executed in a way that does not align with the views of Flagler schools, the Flagler County School Board or this community,” Moore said in the video statement, using the familiar terminology used to hedge off potential lawsuits. The assembly gathered exclusively Black 4th and 5th graders, even though low performers are spread across all races and ethnicities. When aggregated as a group, Black test scores are lower than others’.
The assembly did not distinguish between high and low performing Black students, though some in th assembly were high-performing–and were paraded on stage. The faculty members leading the assembly, including the employee in charge of suspensions at the school, told students in the audience that they had to perform like those peers. Though disabled students as a group also have lower scores in general, the assembly did not include disabled students.
“Students should never be separated by race,” Moore said unequivocally in the video statement. “We acknowledge that this and other subgroups of students must improve, but our commitment is improved academic achievement for all students. As the superintendent of Flagler schools, I apologize for any disruption to our progress this has costs and I asked for your support as a greater community in moving forward. We need your time ideas and resources to address the performance needs of our students as a whole.”
The investigation is being conducted by Mike Rinaldi, who now heads the Office of Professional Standards. He was formerly an assistant principal at Belle Terre Elementary. The investigation will include interviews with all those involved in the decision that led to the assembly, including the principal, Donelle Evensen, and the three faculty members involved in the assembly, who have been referred to, without first names, as “Mr. Hines, Ms. Steed, Mr. Gabriel,” as Evensen did in a Tweet cheering on the assembly last week. All three faculty members are Black. Evensen is white.
A district spokesperson downplayed the difference between the written statement on Tuesday and the video statement today. On Tuesday, Moore only went as far as saying that “sometimes, when you try to think ‘outside the box,’ you forget why the box is there,” without apologies or anything close to the explicit denunciation of separating students by race. “While the desire to help this particular subgroup of students is to be commended,” she had said, “how this was done does not meet the expectations we desire among Flagler Schools,” a line that hardly takes the measure of the offenses parents saw in the assembly, or the objectification of students as instruments in the school’s attempt to avoid becoming a failing school.
The slide presentation shown the students included a slide headlined: “The Problem,” followed by a line containing three grammatical errors and referring to Blacks as the problem. The errors were not intentional or illustrative. They reflected the sloppiness and of the presentation’s organizers. Evensen, the principal, has not responded to an email inquiry for comment. She emailed parents of the Bunnell Elementary community.
But in another indication of the same disconnect that led her to approve the assembly in the first place, she appeared to apologize not for the fact that Black students alone were called out, but because she had not informed parents first, as if that were the prevailing problem: ” I want to assure you, there was no malice intended in planning this assembly. However, we failed to inform you, our parents and guardians of these plans. We realize we went against our long-held belief that this must be a team effort, with you being a key member of that team,” Evensen wrote. “Please accept my apologies. My promise to you is we will learn from this and be better. I have already spoken with several families concerning this event.”
She noted that parents or students could “speak with a member of one of our trained counseling teams,” which at least hinted at an acknowledgement that communications alone wasn’t the problem, but also pointed at the statement’s flaw: Evensen refused to address the problem–the segregation of students, not the students’ “problem”–earnestly, on its terms, head-on.
That aside, there have been no explanations from her or the district regarding a follow-up–or an apology–to the students themselves, though the superintendent apologized to parents and the community.
Moore concluded her 90-second video statement with a plea: “I appeal to this community to come together not just around what we don’t want to see, but what we want to see in our schools. I ask that you get involved in one of our schools, join community organizations that partner with the school district, connect with the Flagler Education Foundation on ways to mentor a student, volunteer, or a plethora of other ways you can contribute. Contact me or one of our school board members with your ideas. Again, I apologize to the specific families and this community and I asked for your support as we move Flagler forward.”