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At St. Pete school, Black History Month contest results in police call

A fun competition for the best door decoration ends up roiling Azalea Middle, where the principal has scheduled more diversity training.
A Black History Month decoration contest went awry recently at Azalea Middle School recently, resulting in a teacher calling St. Petersburg police.
A Black History Month decoration contest went awry recently at Azalea Middle School recently, resulting in a teacher calling St. Petersburg police. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Mar. 12, 2021|Updated Mar. 12, 2021

Seeking a new way to celebrate Black History Month, the staff at Azalea Middle School decided to hold a door decorating contest this year.

It was supposed to be a fun and creative way to give students information about the role Black Americans played in U.S. history.

Things didn’t go quite as expected.

Instead of bringing everyone together, the contest amplified divisions on the west St. Petersburg campus. One teacher called police on another, and the principal scheduled more diversity training for the entire staff. It happened in a year when the Pinellas County school district has worked to pay more attention to equity and social justice.

Soon after the contest started, one door decoration started drawing complaints, said teacher Charra White-Banks, who chairs the school’s Black History Month Committee. In addition to not having a Black history theme, it offended many at the school, she said.

The decoration belonged to social studies department chair Melissa Creaser, who teaches seventh-grade civics.

Creaser’s door featured pictures of NAACP founder W.E.B DuBois, the second United States president John Adams and Mingo Nation Chief Logan over a background of the U.S. flag, with the words “All my colors matter. What history is in your DNA?”

This entry into Azalea Middle School's Black History Month door decoration contest drew criticism and was removed.
This entry into Azalea Middle School's Black History Month door decoration contest drew criticism and was removed. [ Pinellas County School District ]

“Lots of people had lots of things to say about this,” White-Banks said.

Some in the school considered the message a slap in the face to the Black community, and its perceived “All Lives Matter” message inappropriate. Principal Susan Alvaro sent an email to Creaser, in which she encouraged the teacher to reflect on the meaning of Black History Month.

“Black History Month is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing their central role in U.S. history,” Alvaro wrote. “Although I appreciate teachers participating in the door decorating event, I encourage it, but I am uncertain how your door celebrates African American achievement.”

The principal declined to be interviewed for this story.

Creaser, who also did not want to comment, responded to the principal that her aim was to encourage children to learn more about their own family blood line.

”It shows that part of me was a part of the civil rights and I celebrate that,” her return email said. “It makes them see there is more to a person and U.S. history then face value and just the few individuals we chose to celebrate.”

Two days later, the Black History Month Committee removed the decorations, and posted an explanatory letter on Creaser’s door.

“To ensure the well being of students and staff at AMS during this Black history month celebration, all inappropriate, offensive or misleading materials have been removed from this door in the name of the Black History Month Committee,” the letter stated. “All materials will be returned to you in a timely manner.”

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Creaser was not at school, having been on vacation. Upon her return, she asked for her decorations back in an email, and questioned why her door entry had been deemed offensive.

“I have heard that the students didn’t see it as offensive till they saw the letter that was posted on my door and started asking if their teacher was racist,” she wrote.

Creaser got her materials returned on March 1, about a week later, according to school reports.

On March 4, she contacted St. Petersburg police, telling officers she felt “attacked” by the teachers who took the decorations and then slow-walked them back. She further contended she had been deprived of the right to use her property.

“She felt they willing(ly) held them from her to prove their point,” Officer George Graves wrote in his report after investigating Creaser’s complaint over the $10 worth of materials. “Melissa advised she felt like she was the victim of a Petit Theft because she was a white school teacher and that the committees that deemed her decorations offensive and inappropriate were singling her out.”

The school instructional staff is 63 percent white, 31 percent Black and 6 percent Hispanic, according to district records.

In contrast, the school’s enrollment is 49 percent Black, 29 percent white and 14 percent Hispanic. Eight percent come from other groups.

In this image from bodycam footage from March 4, St. Petersburg police officer George Graves interviews Azalea Middle School teacher Melanie Coney about a decoration she removed from another teacher’s door. In the foreground is a letter from the school’s Black History Month Committee that was posted on the door explaining the reason for the removal.
In this image from bodycam footage from March 4, St. Petersburg police officer George Graves interviews Azalea Middle School teacher Melanie Coney about a decoration she removed from another teacher’s door. In the foreground is a letter from the school’s Black History Month Committee that was posted on the door explaining the reason for the removal. [ St. Petersburg Police Department ]

In her written statement, Creaser said Azalea’s racial tensions contributed to the incident.

Art teacher Melanie Coney, who took down the decoration, said she was caught off-guard when Graves called her into an office and told her she had the right to remain silent. She told him as much in the 17-minute interview that was recorded on the officer’s body-camera.

“I just figured whenever she came back, she would come and get it, and we’d talk about it or something,” Coney told the officer, as he questioned her. “Not this. This is definitely a surprise.”

No charges ever came. Graves wrote in his report that the situation would be “best handled as a Civil Problem due to the fact that the ‘stolen’ items had been returned to Melissa and that this was more of a school policy issue and not a criminal matter.”

It had all started as an educational matter. Noting the heightened awareness to race relations after a summer of protests and rallies, the Black History Month Committee settled on the contest as a way to reach more students at Azalea.

They sent out the judging criteria, which put a premium on visual impact, originality, completeness and themes that convey Black history.

What ended up happening was not part of the plan.

White-Banks said that having a department head call the police on a colleague served to widen the divide on the staff, and suggested it created a hostile work environment.

“People are really upset,” White-Banks said. “We don’t feel safe at school.”

Alvaro, the principal, has met with the teachers involved and will continue to meet with them, said school district spokeswoman Isabel Mascareñas.

She said Alvaro also will continue to employ the district’s “restorative practices” principles, a set of practices that aim to build a positive school culture by improving and repairing relationships.

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