Belle Terre Elementary School teacher Abbey Cooke struggled with her emotions as she implored the Flagler County School Board to save her job.
On the board's consent agenda on June 21 was a request for approval of personnel appointments, resignations, retirements, requests for leave, transfers and two termination/non-reappointments. Cooke, a popular teacher for the past 12 years, was a non-reappointment.
Cooke had been investigated and suspended for one day without pay for organizing, participating in and posting a 14-second TikTok video in May that included six of her sixth grade students dancing to the Lizzo song, "About Damn Time." The song contains the F-word and a phrase, "two shots in my cup," referring to alcohol.
Cooke told The Observer that recording the video was positive behavior reinforcement for her students. According to the investigation report, she said the video was made after lunch. In the report, one student said "we learned the dance in about 20 minutes and then took 20 more minutes to record the dance."
"The posting of student images identified by social media accounts showed a reckless disregard for student safety and welfare."
A second investigation led to Cooke's non-reappointment. The investigation report states that she placed more than one video on her TikTok account that included students from her class and enabled her students to access her TikTok account "regardless of appropriateness of subject matter."
Robert Ouellette, the district's coordinator of professional standards, conducted both investigations.
"The posting of student images identified by social media accounts showed a reckless disregard for student safety and welfare," the report states. Cooke said in the first investigation report that she uses a Google Forms document to obtain parent permission to show pictures of the students. Other videos in Cooke's TikTok accounts included her "empty classroom set to music showing a version of a gay pride flag," and videos of a person disagreeing with the "Don't say gay legislation" and another opining about Roe v. Wade, according to the second report.
Cooke was Belle Terre Elementary School's Teacher of the Year in the 2017-18 school year. She was the sixth grade team lead for eight years and sponsored several clubs.
At the School Board meeting, several people spoke on Cooke's behalf, asking the board to remove her non-reappointment from the consent agenda. Cooke presented the board with 60 letters of support from co-workers and former and current students and their parents. She said she never had any other reprimands.
"It was just a stupid, stupid mistake I made, and now my career will end."
"I know I made a mistake, and I apologize for that mistake," she told the board. "I ask you not to approve that line item. It was my first offense, and it did not cause harm to a child. It was just a stupid, stupid mistake I made, and now my career will end."
After board member Janet McDonald made a motion to approve the consent agenda and Jill Woolbright seconded it, Cheryl Massaro asked Jewel Johnson, the school district's chief human resources officer, if teachers who have not been reappointed can appeal. After McDonald and Woolbright initially objected to the question, Johnson confirmed that non-reappointments cannot be appealed.
The board approved the consent agenda, including the non-reappointment, 3-1 with Massaro voting no. Colleen Conklin was absent from the meeting.
Woolbright had been familiar with the TikTok issue weeks before the meeting. She sent an email on May 25, titled "Deplorable teacher behavior," to School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin, Johnson, Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt, Ouellette and then-Assistant Superintendent Robert Bossardet.
"To say that I am appalled to learn about and view ... the disturbing behavior of a classroom teacher in front of and with her students ... is an understatement."
Woolbright wrote: "To say that I am appalled to learn about and view 1. the disturbing behavior of a classroom teacher in front of and with her students, 2. that you have received video evidence, and 3. that this teacher was not immediately relieved of her duties until the conclusion of of the investigation is an understatement." Woolbright went on to send two more emails over the next two days regarding the incident to the district officials.
In her closing comments at the June 21 meeting, Woolbright said board members did not know there was an investigation going on, and that they are "not allowed to know details of an investigation for an event that does come before the board."
In a phone conversation with The Observer, on June 27, Woolbright said she was referring to the second investigation that led to Cooke's non-reappointment.
"There were two investigations," Woolbright said. "The first one I knew about regarding the video by parents and staff." Woolbright said Mittelstadt responded to her email that she should trust the process, and that after she learned about Cooke's one-day suspension, "I was done."