PALMDALE — A questionable attempt at an “end-of-the-year” joke, and not racial animus, was the motivating factor in a decision by four former Summerwind Elementary School first-grade teachers to pose for a picture with a noose taken by their former Principal Linda Brandts, who subsequently emailed the photo to the entire Summerwind staff, according to a 36-page report released Friday by the Palmdale School District.
Perhaps the report’s most shocking revelation is that none of the five educators, who all appear to be white, had any knowledge as to the historical significance of a noose.
“They claimed ignorance regarding the symbolism of the noose as an object of racial hatred,” the report said.
After they learned that the noose was associated with racial hatred toward African-Americans and other people of color, the four teachers and principal expressed extreme remorse for having taken the picture.
“They all expressed that they would have never made fun of the noose or taken the picture had they known that anyone would be offended or hurt by the noose, or had they known that anyone would associate the noose with racial hatred,” the report said.
According to the report, the teachers’ greatest concern was the harm the picture could potentially cause their students. They also expressed regret that they would not be able to conclude the school year with their students.
The report’s recommended corrective actions include requiring all employees to participate in cultural sensitivity training that includes training on the historical symbols of oppression and racism. The report also recommended reminding school employees about the District’s non-discrimination policies, civility policy, and policies governing employee professional standards. A third recommendation would require all employees to participate in training related to the appropriate use of school technology, email, and social media.
The public version of the report does not include the names of the principal, teachers and witnesses interviewed as part of the investigation. Brandts’ name, however, was widely reported because she was principal of Summerwind Elementary at the time of the incident.
In fact, Brandts served as principal of Summerwind Elementary for the past four years. She had been an administrator for over five years, and an educator for more than 15 years.
The report identifies the teachers by number. Teacher 1 has been an elementary school teacher for more than 20 years. She was the first-grade level leader who organized and guided meetings to discuss lesson plans, grade level testing, specific student needs, and topics of instruction for their grade level.
Teacher 2 has been a teacher in the Palmdale School District for 11 years. Teacher 3 began her teaching career at Summerwind Elementary. She has been a first-grade teacher for about six years after serving as a substitute teacher for 10 years. Teacher 4 is a first-year probationary teacher.
According to the timeline detailed in the report, May 1 was an “early release” day when students ended their day at 1 p.m. Brandts emailed all teachers to notify them that Room 223, an unused classroom that had been used for storage, would be cleared out of items to make room for a transitional classroom. Brandts invited the teachers to search the room for any classroom decorations or instructional material they could use for their own classrooms.
All four first-grade teachers headed to Room 223 after they completed their meeting.
Teacher 2 described the experience of searching Room 223 as a “treasure hunt.” They found items such as old cassette players, stuffed animals and decorative grass skirts. They also found math books, posters, a microscope, seasonal decorations and teacher magazines.
Toward the end of their search, Teacher 1 discovered boxes with additional seasonal decorations. She found the noose and showed it to the other teachers.
“The teachers all started laughing at how odd it seemed that the noose was among Room 223’s items. The teachers also spoke over each other, asking ‘What is That?!,’ “Why is that There?!’ and “Was that for Halloween,?!,’ ”the report said.
The teachers joked about how much work they each had to do in the last month before the end of the school year, and began making jokes referencing the noose.
According to the report, the teachers pointed to the noose and joked, “Hang in there until summer,” “It’s the end of the year … we may need this,” “There’s so much to do before end of the year, just hang in there,” and “There’s so much to do … just hang me.”
The teachers remained in Room 223 for about one hour. As they concluded their search, Teacher 1 suggested they show the noose to Brandts. After they left the room and delivered the items and instructional materials to their respective classrooms, they walked toward the teachers’ lounge to find Brandts. Teacher 1 carried the noose in her hand.
They encountered Brandts as she was walking through the lounge on her way home. Teacher 1 held up the noose and said, “You won’t believe what we just found!,” according to the report.
Brandts saw the noose and said, “What?! Why was that in there?!” According to the report, Brandts joined the teachers in laughing at the noose.
“Everyone was in a silly mood,” the report said.
The teachers repeated their jokes about the noose to Brandts, telling her, “We may need this to hang ourselves before the end of the year,” and “It’s the end of the year; I guess we’ve reached the end of our rope.”
As the joking continued, Teacher 1 asked Brandts to take a picture of them with the noose. Brandts took one photo. As she showed it to Teacher 1, the other teachers dispersed but remained in the room. Teacher 1 asked Brandts to send her the photo. Since Brandts did not have her glasses with her, she gave her phone to Teacher 1 so the teacher could email the photo to herself. At that time, Teacher 1 asked Brandts whether she could send the photo to all teachers.
Brandts agreed. She also suggested they send it to Summerwind’s classified staff so they could share the “end-of-the-year” joke with them. Brandts dictated two email addresses to use. Teacher 1 typed them in the phone and sent the email to all classified and certificated staff. Neither woman advised Teacher 2, Teacher 3, and Teacher 4 that they sent the email to all school staff, according to the report.
The email did not include a written message in the body. The subject line read “Room 223 score.”
According to the report, Brandts explained that she typically tries to be conscientious about sending emails to the entire school and about how her emails could be interpreted.
“However, because she was ignorant about the cultural historical significance of the noose, she explained that in this instance, ‘This one (referring to the emailed picture) got by me,’ ” the report said.
After the picture was emailed to all of the school’s employees, Teacher 1 retrieved a tack and hung the noose on one of the walls in the teacher lounge that is not typically used to post photographs. The wall was near a high teacher traffic area, adjacent to the room that houses teachers’ mailboxes. The wall also faces the teachers’ dining area.
Teacher 1 could not explain why she hung the noose on the wall. Her only explanation was because she “didn’t know what to do with it.”
“Teacher 1’s act of hanging the noose on wall showed a gross disregard for professionalism in a teaching position and an inexplicable lack of judgment by someone with over twenty years of teaching experience,” the report said.
The investigator was also not satisfied with Teacher 1’s failure to explain her decision to hang the noose on the wall.
At the time, no one objected to it. Someone took a picture of the noose hanging on the wall. However, none of the witnesses interviewed knew the identity of the person, or who send it to the media, according to the report.
Before they left for the day, Teacher 2 and Teacher 4 checked their school email accounts and discovered that Brandts had distributed their picture to all Summerwind Elementary staff without their consent.
The report described Teacher 4 as “confused and surprised.” Teacher 2 and Teacher 3 expressed similar sentiments.
Teacher 2 said that she was”shocked” and that her mouth “dropped open” when she learned that the picture had been distributed to all staff, the report said. Teacher 2 did not consent to the mass distribution of the picture, in particular without any context or message explaining the picture in the body of the email.
According to the report, Teacher 2 stated the picture was a private joke among the first-grade team, and that she would not have shared the picture with all members of the school staff.
Teacher 3 did not realize until the following day, May 2, that Brandts had distributed the picture schoolwide.
Teacher 4 grew concerned after learning about the picture’s distribution to all school staff. She called her husband and told him about the picture with a rope. He asked what kind of rope it was.
Teacher 4 assumed it was for an intruder drill.
“Was it a noose?” her husband asked.
Teacher 4 responded that she didn’t know what a noose was, according to the report. She sent him the picture via text. He confirmed that it was a noose, and then sent his wife a link to a webpage explaining the significance of a noose.
Shortly thereafter, Teacher 1 walked into Teacher 4’s classroom. Teacher 4 asked Teacher 1, the first-grade team lead, whether someone could be offended by the picture. Teacher 1 assured Teacher 4 that the picture was not offensive, and that Brandts would not have distributed the photo if she thought that someone might get offended.
Teacher 1 later checked her email to take a closer look at the picture. She thought perhaps the picture might be offensive to someone who is sensitive to jokes about suicide, the report said.
Despite the concerns Teacher 4 raised about the offensiveness of the picture, and despite realizing that the noose could have been offensive to someone sensitive to suicide, Teacher 1 did not remove the noose from the teachers’ lounge. She explained that after she concluded her conversation with Teacher 4 it was late in the day and she was in a hurry to get home.
The noose remained in the teachers’ lounge until mid-day May 2. When Teacher 2 and Teacher 4 arrived in the lounge to eat their lunch the noose was still there. Other teachers in the lounge asked Teacher 2 about the noose. Teacher 2 repeated the joke about everyone being at the end of their rope because it was the end of the year. The other teachers laughed before the conversation moved on to other topics.
Witness 5, who had seen the noose earlier that morning on her way to a staff meeting, reported she did not like seeing it on the wall and thought it looked “weird” hanging in the lounge. When she returned to the lounge that afternoon for lunch, she walked over to it, removed it from the wall, and threw it in the trash. That prompted a “thank you” from another teacher in the lounge.
“According to Witness 5, ‘at a fundamental level, I didn’t like it. It didn’t sit right. So I threw it away,’ ” the report said.
The District received its first complaints about the noose picture on May 7. Witness 1, an African-American classified worker at Summerwind, asked to file a complaint with Witness 2. During the meeting, Witness 1 said school administrators gave her an unfair evaluation. She requested a transfer to another school. Witness 2 explained she must first address her concerns with Brandts, and Summerwind’s assistant principal. Witness 1 explained she did not want to do that, and then showed Witness 2 the picture of the first-grade teachers with the noose.
Witness 2 understood the historical significance of the noose, and knew the picture was “not good.”
The morning of May 8, Witness 6 called the District office and Summerwind Elementary to complain about the picture. He stated that he was a “concerned citizen” and that he was very upset by the picture. He called the picture inappropriate and racially offensive. He also threatened to send the picture to the media. Brandts and Witness 3 invited Witness 6 to an in-person meeting to discuss the picture. Witness 6 refused to meet with them.
On May 8, after local news media began contacting the District office for a statement about the picture, Brandts was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into the incident.
“The principal was in shock,” the report stated. “At that point, she still did not understand the magnitude of the incident and thought that she would be allowed to return to the school after a few days.”
The two photos — the four teachers and the noose hanging on the wall — appeared on the evening news the night.
The District hired Garcia Hernandez Sawhney LLP to investigate the incident.
Teacher 4 learned the picture of the four first-grade teachers had been mass distributed when she arrived home the evening of May 8, and checked her Facebook page. Someone she didn’t know attempted to add the picture to her timelime with a crude caption calling for them to be fired.
The District placed the teachers on administrative leave May 9.
The picture went viral. District parents and community members expressed anger, pain, frustration and disappointment. Parents and community activists staged a protest outside of Summerwind Elementary on May 10. Many parents were in tears over the pictures circulating in the media and on the Internet. The District held town hall meeting on May 14 attended by hundreds of parents and community members.
According to the report, the picture of the teachers posing with the noose, the display of the noose on the wall, and the picture of the noose on display created a hostile work environment and violated District Board policies.
A preponderance of evidence also shows that the pictures and media reports caused extreme pain, anguish, and trauma to the Summerwind Elementary and Palmdale School District community.
Brandts resigned from the District in July. Brandts also resigned from her seat on Southern Kern Unified School District’s governing Board. She reportedly moved out of the area. The four former first-grade teachers are still on paid administrative leave.
The District’s governing Board received the report Friday morning during a special closed session meeting. The Board remained in closed session for about 45 minutes. It reported out on one personnel item not related to the investigation.
“This is the beginning of the process,” Palmdale Superintendent Raul Maldonado said afterward.
Maldonado had a chance to briefly review the report but had not yet read the entire thing.
“I believe that the report validates the negative impact these actions have had in the community of Palmdale, and of course our school District,” he said. “They validate the pain, the impact of these irresponsible actions, so we are going to hold people accountable but we have to wait for the process to be completed. The investigation has been completed, now we have to go back and figure out what are the next steps.”
Maldonado added the District has very high standards and will hold all employees accountable.
“The report validates the pain and the impact of these irresponsible actions. This is not a reflection on our school District. It’s a reflection on these five individuals who made a stupid mistake, so we’re going to hold them accountable,” Maldonado said.
The report will be forwarded to another legal team who will work on any potential charges for the teachers.