ESCAMBIA COUNTY, Fla. (WKRG) — Escambia County teacher Michael James has responded to an investigation that was held after he quit his job at O.J. Semmes Elementary School due to two Escambia County Public School employees pulling down photos of Black heroes in his classroom.

On Thursday, the school board released a statement about the investigation put on by the Equal Educational Opportunity Title IX Compliance Office.

The statement said on Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, two ECPS employees, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and a Behavior Coach, came to James’s classroom to assist him in getting his room set up for welcoming students on Wednesday, Aug. 10. James’s teaching assignment for 2022-23 was to be a very small unit of Autism Spectrum Disorder Students.

“Mr. James’s room was, at that point, set up in a more ‘traditional’ classroom configuration, with rows of desks facing the front of the room, which is a wholly inappropriate use of space for a group of students like the one’s he was assigned,” the statement said. “The two ECPS employees engaged Mr. James in reconfiguring the room and making it more academically sound for his teaching assignment.”

During the course of this action, according to the investigation, one of the employees asked James where his teaching area was going to be. He indicated a kidney-shaped table directly in front of the bulletin board displaying the Pledge of Allegiance and the African-American luminaries.

“The Behavior Analyst informed Mr. James the bulletin board directly behind his teaching area needed to be dedicated to state-required curricular materials he would need to engage this specific group of students in their daily learning and development activities, as they were seated at his teaching table with him,” the release 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.”

James said all of the chairs and desks that were moved were for very small K-2 children.

Michael James told WKRG News 5 he did what he did for the kids.

“My 5th grader and others added as the school year continued could never fit in the kindergarten chairs. An ESE class is always fluid with different children being placed in and out throughout the year a huge part of the time,” James said. “It is important to have the room close to the traditional Gen Ed classroom to facilitate a like room when the students are transferred in and out through the school year, especially for children on the Autism spectrum. Consistency is critical with this population.”

He said there was never any mention of dedicating the bulletin board to state standards.

“Not one word even similar to this was mentioned,” James said. “The bulletin board I prepared was fully in line with state standards for this population and its pure diversion to state otherwise.”

The ECPS investigation said the Behavior Analyst asked James if he minded if the posters were removed, and, according to both ECPS employees (interviewed separately), James said, “Yes, do whatever needs to be done.”

“At this point, the Behavior Analyst put up number and alphabet charts that are primary instructional materials for ASD students,” The release said. “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 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.”  

According to James, the placement of his desk when they came in not being correct is an error and they had no idea what his finished room was going to look like.

When it comes to the bulletin board and how the reading level of them were to complex for some groups of students, James said he was planning on reading the posters to them.

“Understanding that some students would not be able to read, I fully intended to read to them while teaching about these famous Black men and women as well as how to read,” James said. “With that said autistic children are some of the most intelligent and talented children I have worked with over these past 15 years. They are often more academically advanced than non-ESE students. Yes, some in my class would be able to read the statements under the pictures and at the very least be taught to read. That is what teachers do.”

Both employees, according to the investigation, were astounded by James’s allegations, as his demeanor in the classroom that day was very friendly and accommodating.

The compliance office said they attempted to contact James several times after receiving the resignation and letter of complaint and said they have not received any communication from James. James said that is not true either.

“I have proof where I tried to return their calls on two different occasions,” James said.

When it all comes down to it, James said he did what he did for the kids.

“I think it is important, when a huge majority of my classroom is African American, that I help them understand that there are really great people in their lives, like them, that they can look up to,” James said. “The Pledge of Allegiance is critical in teaching small children to love and appreciate the best country in the world. What a disappointment that these staff chose to use diversion to hide the clear fact of racism, patriotism and love of God in order to protect the obviously incompetent leadership of Dr Smith once again.” 

James, a white man, grew up in a rural part of Alabama, but said he was instilled values by his father that all all people are equal, regardless of race.

“I’ve worked in my career with many, many Black children,” James said. “My father was a police officer in rural Alabama, and he taught us about Black people and other minorities and that we all have red blood. That is the way that he raised us and taught us. Through teaching for 50 years, I have seen how these kids are disadvantaged in a lot of ways. Whether it’s money appropriated to their schools or things like that. I mean, they are just kids. Take away their color and they are just kids.”

The school board said they were surprised basic communicative steps were not taken by a veteran teacher.

“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 school board said in a release. “The instructional materials could have been displayed appropriately, and Mr. James’s display could simultaneously have been honored.”   

James said there are several things the school board can improve on, but improving the facilities would be the biggest concern.

“Make your appropriations equal to other areas,” James said. “Take care of the buildings. Even the new principal that came there talked about how run down it was. I mean, Florida has the money. They can take care of the facilities. Just because it is a low-income, black community, doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be taken care of. They also need to make sure they hire teachers who love kids, no matter what their race is. I’m not saying there are racists at the school, I just don’t like the way that it was handled.”

The school board said it is their greatest aspiration to foster an atmosphere in which teachers, and all employees, feel valued and supported.

“It is our greatest aspiration at ECPS to foster an atmosphere in which teachers, and all employees, feel valued and supported,” The school board said. “We are also resolved to honor all races and ethnicities and the valuable contributions their members have made to this great nation. Allegations such as this serve only to create division, while we at Escambia County Public Schools remain united for every student to succeed.”

Looking forward, James said he is going to find somewhere out of Florida to keep teaching.

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