After learning that two teenagers — two of her own language arts students — had been caught having a racist rant about her at Flagler Palm Coast High School on school laptops on Dec. 10, 2018, Kimberly Lee was apprehensive about going to school on Dec. 11. The students had said disturbing, shocking things, making plans to “stomp on her f------ face” in hopes of getting a “medal for killing a [racial slur].”
But what was also disturbing to Lee is that the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office’s incident report stated that no charges would be filed, even when the student had said something as blatant as “WERE GONNA GET AWAY WITH MURDUR TONIGHT.” She thought, How could the Sheriff’s Office dismiss these racist threats as not being credible without even interviewing her to see how she felt?
She found the school resource deputy at FPC on Dec. 11 and told him that she did, in fact, want to press charges against the students. Ultimately, they were charged with misdemeanor assault with a hate crime enhancement. The NAACP called for more severe charges in a press conference on Dec. 18, and a State Attorney’s Office spokesman said on May 2, 2019, that the investigation is ongoing; no decision has been made yet on whether to pursue the case.
After Dec. 11, Lee felt she was mistreated. She was afraid for her own safety, but just as importantly, she didn’t know if she could be the teacher her students needed. So she took an unpaid leave of absence.
She spoke with the Palm Coast Observer on May 2 about her teaching philosophy, how she feels now about the incident — and why she eventually returned to the classroom.
Q: Why did you become a teacher?
A: I’m probably very idealistic, like most teachers are. I hope to change the world in some sort of way.
It’s my job to ask question and ultimately to get them to ask question for themselves. I’m hoping that that will help, in some way, get kids to think deeper than they might normally about things going on in the world.
What I love most about teaching is that: the interaction with the kids.
Q: How do you go about developing relationships with your students?
A: I’m not afraid to share things that have happened in my life, or things I’m concerned about. They need to see you as a person, not just this teacher. I have challenges just like you do. You can overcome them the way I have.
I think it’s important for them to understand that you really care about them, and I do.
Q: Have you been impacted by racism before 2018?
A: I think every person that is African American or otherwise has experienced some degree of racism. I’ve definitely never experienced it to that degree before, so I was kind of blindsided. It being slapped in my face — I’ve never experienced it like that before.
Q: How did you feel when you learned that the students had this internet chat about you?
A: I was really shocked. I thought that they made a mistake, because I hadn’t had any issues with any students, so I didn’t know who it possibly could have been. I pride myself on having positive relationships with students and being open. I’ve talked about race in my classroom before. The first or second day when you come in, I always do an activity where I have students draw a pair of glasses. In the lens of the glasses, I ask them to write things that represent who they are — one of those being race — and then we talk about perception and how you can’t help but see the world through the glasses that you wear.
If I’m an African American, that’s my view of the world, so I see the world through those eyes. If I’m a person who has divorced parents, that’s how I see the world. I also encourage them to exchange glasses with someone — literally. We talk about how difficult it is to see through someone else’s glasses, but if you try hard enough, your eyes adjust. It’s uncomfortable, but at least you can see something.
For the last five years, that’s the activity that I’ve done on the first or second day of class, and it’s helped to talk about difficult subjects. I’ll say, You need to try on her glasses, to think about how things are happening.
After having done so many activities, how could I not know that something was amiss?
Q: What would be the appropriate response from the Sheriff’s Office and the school district?
A: The initial reaction from the Sheriff’s Office was disturbing to me, because I think that there was general thought that it was just a joke, and even if the threat itself was a joke, the racial implications of it was something that bothered me more. I don’t understand how this was a joke, how it could have ever been considered as a joke. So that was really extremely bothersome to me that it was initially perceived that way, that kids just say things that they don’t mean, especially in today’s climate. I found it very alarming that they wouldn’t take things like seriously.
Initially, the case was dismissed even prior to speaking to me. So I felt like some of the comments that were made within the chat, like African Americans not having any rights, that was true, based on the way that I was treated by them, that it wasn’t even worth talking to me, to even determine my level of concern. I wish they would have taken the time to interview me.
I felt like I was not important.
Q: Why did you decide not to return to school at first?
A: I was still feeling a lot of fear, a lot of confusion.
I thought it was possible that the threat could be carried through. I didn’t feel they had done a thorough investigation. I wondered if there were other people involved in it. And it made me feel that I didn’t know the kids in my class. To me that was really unfair to have those thoughts because not every kid did that, but that’s how I was looking at them, so I didn’t feel that I could perform my job in that way, not being able to give them the benefit of the doubt, to feel comfortable teaching them.
Q: How long were you out? What was that period like for you?
A: I was out Dec. 12 to March 1. It was a very difficult time for us. I suffered a lot physically and emotionally. Financially, I was out on unpaid leave for a while, for something that I didn’t really do. I felt completely victimized. My name was out there, my children were confused and upset, but the perpetrators were being kept safe. I probably didn’t leave my house for a good month. I was just very depressed.
Q: Why did you decide to return when you did?
A: I really needed to go back to see if I still love it. I felt like I owed that to myself, to see if I could still do it. I also felt like I needed to show my strength in going back, to not allow this to take away my career, and take away my life. I was reclaiming myself by going back, but it’s where I belong.
It’s still difficult on some days, but I have very supportive colleagues that definitely help me to get through the day when I’m feeling anxious, because I definitely still have lots of anxiety.
I’m definitely not as trusting as I used to be. I’m more aware of things that in the past I would have dismissed as, So-and-so’s having a bad day. I’m a little more conscious of what it looks like and what it might mean. And it’s kind of sad that I have to think that way. I’m less likely to give people the benefit of the doubt.
Q: How do you heal from this? How can the community heal from this?
A: I think that’s the most disappointing thing to me: Nothing changed. Nothing changed. Something like this should have changed us in some way. It hasn’t even been a conversation. I think people need to realize that those attacks were directed to me, but those comments affected every black and brown person at the school, and I don’t think people recognize that. No one addressed that at all. That’s extremely disappointing. I think people feel like if we don’t talk about it, it kind of goes away. Those attitudes came from the culture that exists at our school, and we need to recognize it and do something about it, and I don’t think as a district, as a school, that people are willing look at it. As I’ve said to the class before, through their glasses everything’s fine, but if they would try on somebody else’s glasses, some of the other students of color, they might get a different view of the school.
I feel that we need to have more teachers of color at school. My daughter is in 10th grade, and she’s had one African American teacher.
If we want to create a more diverse school, you need to have more diverse people there, and it takes effort to do that. When you do that, then our conversations will be different, our culture will be different, and we can make some changes when that happens.
I’d like to see us do some diversity training at school, and I’d like to see some programs put into place to stimulate and have conversations with kids about these things. They’re not going to go away. We just need to pick up people’s glasses and put them on.
Q: You said you wanted to see if you could still do it. Can you?
A: I can. It’s hard to do, but the good moments certainly outweigh the bad ones. I love the energy in the classroom. I got lots of hugs, lots of emails while I was gone, and it was important for me to let the students know that I don’t lump them all into one category. I don’t really even think badly of the kids that did this. I think it was a horrible mistake, and I think we have to suffer the consequences when we do things, but I hope that they’re learning from this and that it will change them in a positive way. Because if they didn’t learn anything — if we all didn’t learn something — then it’s all for naught.