Despite ‘heightened security,’ students walk out at Lincoln Memorial Academy

Students voice their concerns during Lincoln Memorial walkout

Dozens of Lincoln Memorial Academy students walk out of school on Friday morning.
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Dozens of Lincoln Memorial Academy students walk out of school on Friday morning.

More than 40 students walked out of Lincoln Memorial Academy on Friday morning, demanding the return of their former principal, Eddie Hundley, and the curriculum that left with him.

Friday’s school walkout was exactly one month after the school board voted 4-1 to terminate Lincoln’s charter and continue its operations, citing concerns with its finances and former leadership.

Residents of Palmetto felt they lost a sense of pride and ownership during the school’s transition, and despite the presence of district administrators and local authorities, their protest continued on Friday.

Residents were unhappy with the takeover on July 23, when board members added the charter termination to their meeting agenda, said Dexter McDonald, president of the Manatee County Community Pastors Fellowship.

Lincoln’s supporters were further outraged as the school underwent changes to its curriculum and staffing, without input from parents or other community members, he continued.

“Even though we face difficulties of today and tomorrow, this community believes in the dream to educate our children at our school: Lincoln Memorial Academy,” he said. “This hope and dream is deeply rooted in this community.”

The feud between district officials and community members was evident on Friday. While residents said the walkout was planned solely by students, district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum said he felt otherwise.

“While the School District of Manatee County respects our students’ First Amendment right of freedom of expression, as outlined on page two of our Code of Student Conduct, the events that transpired at Lincoln Memorial Academy today were initiated, instigated and encouraged by adults inside and outside of the school for political reasons,” he wrote in a prepared statement.

Teitelbaum said ongoing issues would be settled outside of the school district, a reference to the Division of Administrative Hearings and the upcoming appeal process, scheduled for Aug. 26 to Aug. 28, when both sides will present their arguments.

District officials recently underscored Lincoln’s unpaid utility bills and late contributions to the Florida Retirement System, along with a budget deficit of more than $250,000 as of May. In turn, school leaders accused the district of hindering Lincoln in its first year as a charter school.

In his statement on Friday afternoon, Teitelbuam also referenced the ongoing investigation of Lincoln and its former principal, along with its former chief financial officer, Cornelle Maxfield. In a letter dated July 30, the U.S. Department of Education said it was inquiring abou “potential violations of federal law.”

At first it seemed the protest would again be squashed, much like a planned walkout last week, when interim Principal Ronnie King urged students to reconsider their plan, citing the possibility of criminal charges and disruptions to the school day.

A day before the walkout, district spokesman Mike Barber said Lincoln would be in a state of heightened security, citing social media rumors about a threat in Manatee County, though police later called the posts a false “rumor mill.”

Sheriff’s deputies and police officers were present inside and outside of Lincoln’s campus on Friday morning, and all were gone by 11 a.m., after the walkout ended.

The protest began shortly after 8 a.m., when a small group of students charged the fence bordering Second Avenue East, near the corner of 17th Street East. They said district administrators were preventing students from leaving, but small groups continued to arrive in waves, totaling more than 40 students before they returned to class.

“The principal and the school board is not listening to us,” said Leilani Phele, an eighth-grader at Lincoln. “We want Mr. Hundley back. Our school is being violated and technically we aren’t what we used to be.”

In a letter dated July 30, Teitelbaum said all use of Total Life Preparation — the foundation of Lincoln’s prior curriculum — could no longer be used due to “copyright laws, licensing requirements and restrictions.”

Students also demanded the return of Hundley, their former leader, and they called for the departure of King, the school’s interim principal. The Bradenton Herald recently reported on King’s lengthy disciplinary file, which included a failure to report “the suspicion of child abuse” in 2017, and use of “derogatory statements” earlier this year.

“He is not our principal; he is just a man standing there,” Phele said, as fellow students burst into a chant.

“We want Eddie,” they proclaimed.

The Florida Education Practices Commission revoked Hundley’s educator certificate for five years, upholding the recommendation of an administrative law judge. Both groups cited the principal for two job recommendations he gave to Quentin Peterson, a former teacher who was under criminal investigation.

According to the final order, issued on May 13, a revoked certificate prevents someone from working “in any capacity requiring direct contact with students.” District and school leaders then argued whether sanctions applied to Hundley, the charter school’s founder and chief executive officer.

Randy Kosec, chief of professional practice services at the Florida Department of Education, addressed the argument in a July 2 letter to Christine Dawson, chair of the school’s governing board.

“I understand that Mr. Hundley will be serving as CEO/Founder of Lincoln Memorial Academy,” Kosec wrote.

“However, your response did not include an explanation of how Mr. Hundley can carry out his duties without direct contact with students, which would mean that he would not be on campus at times when students are present, especially the function of ‘senior level leadership and oversight,’” he continued.

Proponents said Hundley is the visionary for Lincoln Middle School’s transition to Lincoln Memorial Academy, and they feel Hundley will one day be vindicated.

More than a dozen adults stood outside of Lincoln on Friday morning, holding signs and offering the students encouragement. “Not only guns can kill dreams. Manatee School Board did. We are LMA,” the signs read.

The community feels ignored, said Arthur Huggins, vice president for the Manatee County Community Pastors Fellowship. They believe Lincoln, a school that was segregated until 1969, was stripped from the people who were most invested in its success.

“These kids are hurting,” he said. “They are playing a deaf ear and they are closing their eyes, as if they don’t see what’s going on with these children today. It’s sad. It has extremely upset this community.”

The school district has named Ronnie King as the interim principal of Lincoln Memorial Academy.

Giuseppe Sabella, education reporter for the Bradenton Herald, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He spent time at the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and the Florida Times-Union. His coverage of education in Manatee County earned him a first place prize in the Florida Society of News Editors’ 2019 Journalism Contest. Giuseppe also spent one year in Charleston, W.Va., earning a first-place award for investigative reporting.