Little scandals: Paraeducator banished from South Natomas special education class after dispute reaches social media

Veteran teacher’s aide can’t find work since criticizing Little Rascals showing

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the March 2, 2017, issue.

After drawing attention to a classroom incident with unfortunate racial overtones, veteran paraeducator Cory Burleson-Bayone can’t find work in Sacramento County.

Events began February 9 during a special-education class at Bannon Creek Elementary in South Natomas. There teacher Ju Park put on a The Little Rascals DVD from the 1930s for students working on an art project so she could attend a meeting.

Like many things from the ’30s, the series of short comic films about poor neighborhood kids, originally known as Our Gang, contains material that is questionable by today’s standards. The most objectionable moment in the DVD comes when the young characters give joke answers to a teacher during a pop quiz. When she asks where they got these answers, one student holds up a “Minstrel and Blackface Joke Book.”

Appalled, Burleson-Bayone, one of three part-time paraeducators in the room, snapped a cellphone photo of a black student who raised a fist in front of the screen. The photo was taken from behind the student’s seat so his face is not visible. Burleson-Bayone shared the photo with her sister, who sent it to a friend, Faith McKinnie, who then tweeted the photo and tagged Natomas Unified School District and Sacramento County. (While the special education class takes place inside Bannon Creek, which is part of Natomas Unified, it is administered by the Sacramento County Office of Education.)

Burleson-Bayone says she didn’t know this would happen, but the photo ended up triggering a disciplinary double-standard: understanding for the well-intentioned instructor who put on the outdated material, and exile for the longtime classroom aide whose displeasure reached social media.

McKinnie took it upon herself to write a blog post, titled “The Minstrel Classroom.” The post linked to more offensive clips from The Little Rascals series that were not shown to students—none of whom reported “concerns about the content of the DVD,” according to an official report by the Sacramento County Office of Education, which learned of the incident through the social-media posts.

Burleson-Bayone says she learned of the tweet and blog post for the first time the next day, when other teachers stormed into the classroom asking who had provided the picture. Burleson-Bayone said the students responded by pointing and calling her a “snitch.”

“I’m just sinking in my desk,” Burleson-Bayone told SN&R. “It was not a good day. It was probably the most horrible day I’ve lived. [But] when things come up in your lap, and you want to fight for children’s rights, you have to do what you’re called to do.”

After school ended, Burleson-Bayone tried logging onto the account that gives her access to her paycheck and open teaching jobs in Sacramento County, but found that she had been locked out and that her contracted days at Bannon Creek had been terminated due to an “investigation.”

SCOE Superintendent Dave Gordon said this occurred because Burleson-Bayone violated a policy against using cellphones and photographing students without permission, particularly those with special needs. She claims she wasn’t aware of the policy.

SCOE spokesman Tim Herrerra said that the county was in the process of setting up a meeting with Burleson-Bayone to discuss her violations, but that she declined to speak with SCOE representatives “without proper legal representation.”

“The fact that Ju Park and the other staff that were present are still employed gives me reason to believe that I will and would not be properly supported,” Burleson-Bayone wrote in a follow-up email explaining her decision. “I also still have a failed log-in account. What’s needed to be said or done can be done in writing.”

Gordon declined to say whether Park faced disciplinary action. SCOE has since implemented new policies requiring teachers to preview supplemental materials prior to showing them to students, and ensure that certified staff members are present before leaving a classroom. As part-time classroom aides, paraeducators are not considered certified staff.

Gordon said he wished that Burleson-Bayone had contacted the school’s administration first, but didn’t disapprove of the issue being raised. The meeting with his office, he added, wasn’t to “demean her, because she did what she thought was right at the time. We just want to explain why that was not appropriate from our perspective.”

In its report, SCOE concluded the blog intended “to assert that minstrel and blackface material was shown to the children,” which was not quite the case.

Burleson-Bayone said she was not interviewed about the incident for the report. The 16-year educator said she found the decision to present the outdated film series to a special education classroom with impressionable students potentially harmful. And she believes the matter could have been resolved differently.

“If [they] would have just asked me [about what should be done], it would have been a simple, ’Hey, we screwed up. We apologize. We’re sorry. Let’s burn it,’” she said. “It’s a mess.”

It wasn’t the only race-based flare-up at a Sacramento school. Kennedy High School on Monday ended a long-standing tradition of auctioning off seniors to act as servants for a day to raise money for its senior ball. An African-American senior who created an online petition to end the practice criticized the fundraiser for conjuring associations to slavery during Black History Month.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated. The original version incorrectly identified the special education class as being administered by Bannon Creek Elementary School. The school simply hosts the class. SN&R regrets the error.