(RALEIGH) – Public documents obtained by the Civitas Institute show some school officials didn’t want to cooperate after a mother in Hoke County complained about her daughter’s homemade lunch being inspected by school officials.
The girl was then told to eat cafeteria food because her homemade lunch didn’t meet nutrition standards. An article about the incident appeared on the Civitas Institute web site and created a national outcry that forced state officials to investigate. Jani Kozlowski with the Division of Child Development and Early Education contacted the principal, Jackie Samuels, of West Hoke Elementary School to find out what happened. Kozlowski states in an email message to a colleague that Samuels said he had no information to share and “would not respond to any questions.” Kozlowski noted in the message the director of the division Deb Cassidy tried to contact Hoke County Superintendent Freddie Williamson but he never called her back.
Hoke County Schools officials did not respond to a public records request.
A child care consultant in the division, Cecilia Ellerbe, was able to meet with Williamson in February. Ellerbe assesses pre-K programs through unannounced visits. She says in her report on those meetings that Williamson said the incident was becoming political and he wanted nothing to do with it. Ellerbe reported that during a visit with Williamson February 6 the superintendent wanted her to give them a warning of any future assessment visits. Kozlowski wrote she reminded him her visits were required to be unannounced. However, a telephone log entry shows Ellerbe telling division Licensing Director Sharon Summers that she (Ellerbe) told Williamson she would let Hoke County pre-K director Elizabeth Mitchell know about future visits “if she didn’t let staff know,” and Williamson agreed.
Emails confirm the lunch incident January 30 was not an isolated case. Ellerbe stated in a report she was at West Hoke Elementary the week before the “chicken nuggets” episode. She wrote that she walked around and looked over the lunches six pre-K students brought from home. According to Ellerbe five of the lunches met nutrition standards but one contained only a sandwich. The teacher then retrieved a lunch tray for that child from the school cafeteria. The pre-K teachers told Ellerbe they always handled similar situations that way.
The documents also show this wasn’t the first time West Hoke Elementary was under scrutiny by state regulators. An email exchange after the “chicken nuggets” incident between the Early Childhood Program Coordinator at Sandhills Community College, Ronda Hawkins, and division director Cassidy mentions an earlier incident of possible abuse at the same school. Hawkins recalled one of the students in Hawkins’ program taking a picture of a pre-K teacher at West Hoke hitting a student with a ruler during nap time. Cassidy replied, “Oh my gosh, I had no idea!” It was Hawkins’ student who reminded her in an email message about the earlier case after hearing about the “chicken nuggets” story, saying “I can only imagine the truth behind this story.”
When contacted, Hawkins didn’t want to elaborate on the conversation but said the teacher was no longer at the school.