Michael James — a 61-year-old white special needs teacher at O.J. Semmes Elementary School in Escambia County, Florida — wrote a letter announcing his resignation to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) after James’ classroom posters of Black national heroes were taken down for being “age-inappropriate.”
While James didn’t blame DeSantis, the posters may have been removed in the belief that they violated the state’s April 2022 law (championed by DeSantis) which bans educators from teaching certain topics related to race.
Because James teaches at a predominantly Black school, he spent $58 and several hours to create a classroom bulletin board behind his desk which featured portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., Harriett Tubman, Colin Powell, and George Washington Carver, noting their historic achievements. He wanted his students to feel inspired by people who looked like them, he told The Pensacola News Journal.
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However, on Monday, a board-certified behavior analyst for the school district unexpectedly entered his classroom “to help him set up the room.” The analyst then began removing the pictures of the Black historical figures from his bulletin board.
When he asked what she was doing, “She said something along the lines of it wasn’t age-appropriate,” James told the publication. She also picked up the portrait he had of Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president, on his desk and allegedly said, “You don’t need to put this up either. The kids are too young.”
He teaches kids in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“I don’t know who guided her or why she took that on her own. I’ve never seen that in 15 years — just completely take down my board — without asking or anything,” he said.
James worried that if he reported what had happened to his school’s principal, the administrator would simply “sweep things under the rug.” So instead, he wrote a letter describing the incident to DeSantis and Escambia County Superintendent Tim Smith.
“Am I to believe Escambia County Schools employs those that dislike African Americans?” James wrote in his letter, adding that he couldn’t “work for a school, or under the umbrella of a school district, that would hire people who would condone such behavior.”
In a statement issued Tuesday, Escambia County Public Schools spokesperson Cody Strother wrote that the district is conducting a full investigation. “If these allegations are deemed factual, we will certainly take corrective action, as it is our aim that all of our teachers feel valued and supported,” Strother wrote.
James has since said he’s confident he will be hired elsewhere since he has excellent teaching credentials. Florida is currently experiencing a teacher shortage.
When DeSantis signed his law banning certain race topics in public classrooms, he said, “We believe in education, not indoctrination. We believe an important component of freedom in the state of Florida is the freedom from having oppressive ideologies opposed upon you without your consent.”
Around the same time, DeSantis also signed a “Don’t Say Gay” law which bans LGBTQ teachers from acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ people or issues in elementary school classrooms.
In response to the law, Joni Madison, the interim president of the LGBTQ advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign, wrote, “DeSantis once again placed Florida squarely on the wrong side of history, and placed his own young constituents directly in harm’s way — and he has done this for no other reason than to serve his own political ambitions.”
“The existence of LGBTQ+ people across Florida is not up for debate, and this restriction on free speech flies in the face of one of our most sacred rights. So, let’s be clear — this bill must be repealed,” Madison added.