How did four smiling teachers end up posing with a noose? Here’s what they told investigators
Four elementary school teachers who were placed on leave after a photo of them smiling and holding a noose circulated on social media were not motivated by racism and were unaware of the pain and hurt it would cause the Palmdale School District community, an investigator concluded in a new report.
But the actions of the Summerwind Elementary School teachers in May were “ignorant, lacked judgment, and exhibited a gross disregard for professional decorum in a school setting,” according to the report released Friday.
For the record:
10:22 AM, Sep. 09, 2019An earlier version of this article identified Gabriel Fernandez as Gabriel Hernandez.
The photo sparked a public outcry and the teachers were placed on paid administrative leave while investigators looked into the matter. The district also held a town hall meeting to address community concerns.
The principal, who took the picture on her phone, resigned in July.
The first-grade teachers told the investigator that the photo was meant as a “hang in there until summer” joke — bemoaning that it was almost the end of the school year and that “we’ve reached the end of our rope.”
The principal and all four teachers, who remained unnamed in the report, said they had no knowledge of the racial hatred a noose symbolizes. One teacher, whose family often attends rodeos, said her first thought when she saw the noose was the Wild West. Upon deeper reflection, she thought that someone could be offended by the picture if that person “had a family member that committed suicide.” Another didn’t know what a noose was until texting her husband, who responded by sending a link to a webpage explaining its significance.
The investigator recommended cultural sensitivity training for all school employees.
David Garcia, a spokesman for the school district, said that district leaders were reviewing the report and would decide on disciplinary actions for each of the teachers.
“This is offensive, period. … The board is committed to seeing this to the end,” Garcia said. “This investigation report validates all the ill feelings, all the hurt, all the pain that the Palmdale School District and its community suffered. I don’t want to say stupid, but this was a pretty dumb thing to do.”
According to the 35-page report, the noose was discovered while the four teachers were going through a dusty storage room for items that they could use in their classrooms. It was like a “treasure hunt,” one said, as they went through “random old stuff” like cassette players and decorative grass skirts, as well as useful seasonal decorations.
Then one teacher found the noose.
“What is that?!” one of them asked. “Was that for Halloween?”
They then began joking about all the work they still had to do before the end of the school year, the report said.
“Hang in there until summer!” they joked. “We’ve reached the end of our rope.”
They took it to the teachers’ lounge to share the joke with others, the report said. One teacher asked the principal to take a picture of them with her phone. They posed and smiled.
The principal did not have her glasses on at the time, so she gave her phone to one of the teachers to email the picture to herself, the report said. The teacher asked if she could send the picture to all the teachers. The principal agreed and suggested they send it to all classified staff so that no one would feel excluded from the joke.
Someone then shared the photo online, and public outcry exploded on social media. Some parents, shocked and outraged, kept their kids home from school in response.
The teachers and principal were put on administrative leave within 48 hours, school officials said, and the district’s general counsel was called in immediately to investigate.
In a town hall the following week, members of the community spoke about the pain they experienced after seeing the pictures.
One parent asked the district to review the curriculum and ensure that everyone was learning the truth about slavery and the trauma that prevailed today.
“We trusted you. By God we trusted you. As parents we wake up in the morning every morning and we bring our children to this institution with hope that they receive quality education,” a representative for a coalition of parents said, according to the report.
“Now as parents you have left us with not only a heavy heart but the responsibility to sit our children down next to us to explain to them that their ancestors’ efforts toward freedom and civil rights is a mere mockery to their teachers and principal. What was so funny? I’d love to hear the punchline that was told before the picture was taken. What was so funny? 400 years of oppression is not a joke to me and nothing to laugh at.”
The teachers exhibited extreme remorse to investigators, the report said.
“Their greatest concern was the harm that the picture could potentially cause their students. One of their biggest regrets was their inability to conclude the school year with their students and their inability to give their students closure before the end of the school year.”
Prior to this photo, the principal — as well as the teachers — had no history of discipline regarding racial incidents, according to the report. She was well-respected and described as welcoming and someone who fostered a good working environment where everyone got along.
News reports earlier this year said the photo was somehow connected to a notoriousthat had rattled the community in prior years.
The Times reported that one of the teachers in the photo was the first-grade teacher of Gabriel Fernandez, the 8-year-old boy who was tortured and murdered by his mother, Pearl Sinthia Fernandez, and the mother’s boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, in 2013. The teacher had repeatedly reported signs of abuse before the boy’s death.
A law enforcement source had told The Times that, according to someone connected with Gabriel’s family, the photo was taken in celebration of Aguirre’s death penalty sentencing. That theory also surfaced with comments on a Facebook post on a page dedicated to Gabriel. The photo was taken almost a year after Aguirre was sentenced.
The school district investigation looked into these claims, officials said, and confirmed they were false.
“Some media outlets incorrectly reported that the first-grade teachers took the picture with the noose to celebrate the conviction and sentencing of the defendants in the Gabriel Fernandez case,” the investigation said. “These media reports are false. There is no truth to them and no connection between this incident and the Gabriel Fernandez incident.”
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