PALMDALE — More than 300 people filled Summerwind Elementary School’s multipurpose room Tuesday night for an emotional special four-hour meeting by Palmdale School District’s governing Board, followed by a town hall meeting, as community members demanded answers after a photograph of four first-grade teachers pointing and smiling at a noose in the teachers’ lounge became public last week.
Some of the speakers said the photo is an example of the racism endemic in the District. Others called for cultural sensitivity training for all employees. Some speakers also pointed out that the United States’ history of lynchings includes Mexican-Americans and people of other races in addition to blacks.
Summerwind Principal Linda Brandts, who also serves as clerk of the Southern Kern Unified School District, and the four teachers were placed on administrative leave last week pending an investigation.
Palmdale School District Superintendent Raul Maldonado confirmed Tuesday night and again Wednesday morning that Brandts apparently took the photo on May 1 and emailed it to Summerwind’s staff.
“I was shocked. I was appalled. I was amazed. Of course, I was angry looking at the picture,” Maldonado said at the start of the meeting.
Maldonado added they hold all employees to the highest standard.
“Racist behavior has never been tolerated at any of our schools,” Maldonado said.
Maldonado first learned about the photo at the end of the day on May 7. They opened an inquiry. They placed Brandts on administrative leave, followed the next day by the four teachers.
The noose was reportedly found in an unused classroom that had been turned into a storage room. Teachers were organizing the room. It is not known when or how the noose was first brought to the campus. The context of the photo also isn’t known.
“Early indications are the picture was impulsive and not organized,” Maldonado said.
Bonny Garcia, general counsel for the Palmdale School District, said a partner in his office is conducting the investigation. Garcia anticipated it would take about two weeks to complete the investigation.
“We know the what. We don’t know the why. We don’t know the motivation,” Garcia said.
The theories going around, Garcia said, include racial bias on the part of those involved. Another theory has to do with one of the teachers pictured in the photo, Jennifer Garcia.
Garcia was the first-grade teacher for Gabriel Fernandez, the eight-year-old boy who was tortured and murdered by his mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, in May 2013. Aguirre was sentenced to death in June 2018. Gabriel’s mother was sentenced to life in prison.
A third theory is that the photo was a “hang in there” for summer, Garcia said. That drew protests from members of the audience. A fourth theory was that it was a “goof” with people behaving inappropriately.
“I do not have evidence to conclude that one theory has more credibility than the other. And that is why we’re doing the investigation, and that is why it has to be thorough,” Garcia said.
Although activists have called for Brandts and the four teachers to be fired, Garcia said they do not have the right to do that yet.
Regardless, Maldonado said Wednesday that Brandts and the teachers will not return to Summerwind Elementary.
Carla Jackson, a Summerwind parent, said she has never felt so uncomfortable bringing her child to school.
“I don’t know who to trust. I don’t know who was involved. Dr. Brandts shook my hand, hugged me, talked with me … I never would have guessed that she was racist, or whatever it is,” Jackson said.
Summerwind Acting Principal Marginese Streeter, who also serves as community liaison for the African American Parent Advisory Council, moderated the town hall meeting.
“Tonight we are taking input, your input, to help us move forward, and we want to hear from you,” Streeter said.
Guests included Bishop Henry Hearns and Darren Parker, who headed the former Antelope Valley Human Relations Task Force.
“This is not a black thing; it’s not a brown thing; it’s not a white thing; it’s a right and wrong thing,” Bishop Henry Hearns said.
“This is where we start to change in this Valley,” Parker said.
Streeter encouraged parents to join their local AAPAC.
“It serves as a tool for parents to be empowered in the decision-making process,” Streeter said.
School Board member Dennis Trujillo apologized to the audience for the hurt the photo created.
“This is something that will not be tolerated. I understand that a noose is a symbol of racism. I would also like to apologize to the people that look at a noose as a symbol of suicide,” Trujillo said, adding that a close friend hanged himself last year.
Helena Perkins, president of the California School Employees Association Chapter 296, which represents classified employees for the Palmdale School District, said the outcome of the investigation will “confirm, assure and set the precedent of whether the Palmdale Promise is truly alive or not.”
Michele Lemaire, an African-American Summerwind teacher, said she has been subjected to racist behavior at the school, and was forced to resign.
“I’m a successful African-American teacher who has suffered and endured straight-out racial discrimination,” Lemaire said.
Former Palmdale School District school Board member Joyce Ricks, a former teacher in the District, said it is not right to worry about one school.
“It’s being done all over,” Ricks said. “There’s some very good teachers (in this school District), but there are some very racist teachers. It’s not just four or five people.”
Resident Mary Long called for more diversity in the community.
“This is not the only school district where racism lives, and I think we sweep it under the rug,” Long said.
Parent Ian David, an licensed vocational nurse with the Palmdale School District, said there is no excuse for the photo.
“This is my school. I’ve had lunch with Ms. Brandts, and the pain that I feel when my cousin called me from Florida to say, ‘What is wrong with your school.’ There are no words to explain it,” David said between tears.
Ann McKeown, a teacher and parent of four daughters, talked about the impact on the students.
“I want to know what is happening for the children in this school who are afraid to go, whose parents are crying because they’re angry and hurt,” McKeown said. “We have a responsibility to show how a community deals with the hurt and the hated, and how we move forward together.”
Parent Colby Estes said his children have been at Summerwind for seven years. His wife serves as PTA president.
“I know for a fact that there is a large number of teachers that are against that wall that are not involved in this … I understand the passion that everybody else has, and we’re all trying to come from different places. My school that my kids attend is their sanctuary for learning. That’s what it is intended for, and that’s what we need to make sure we let it be”
Palmdale resident Lourdes Everett said racism does exist.
“A picture tells us a thousand words,” Everett said of the controversial photo she called both stupid and racist.
“I was appalled. I was angry because on its face it was racist. I was angry because on its face the fact that these people posed, unashamedly, glorifying and displaying the noose with pride,” Everett said, adding she was angry the teachers were in a classroom with minority students.
“We can only imagine the victimization, either directly or indirectly, that these children receive,” Everett said.
Speaker Phillip Brown said their history is empowering.
“This is a great opportunity for us to empower ourselves with our history,” Brown said.
Civil rights activist Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic Hope of Los Angeles, led a rally in support of parents outside the school prior to the start of the meeting.
“We all saw that picture, and for African-Americans that picture is shameful. It’s racially offensive because African-Americans are the ones who were lynched by this noose. So we want to make sure that our message is there are no excuses for this type of racial imagery in any school system,” Ali said.
Ali added, “There are three things our white brothers and sisters can’t say. Three things, under any circumstances they cannot use the N-word; they cannot use blackface; they cannot use a noose to make their point under any circumstance. And that’s why the teacher, the principal and all involved must be fired by the school District.”
“Let’s not mistake — African-Americans were not the only ones lynched in America; Mexican were also lynched in America. So it’s very important that we inform the whole community that in the Antelope Valley we’re not going to tolerate racism,” community activist Miguel Coronado said.