MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Leaders at a Mooresville charter school are apologizing after a viral video shared online showed students from the school wearing "Make American Great Again" shirts and hats at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.
In a video, a teacher from another school said the students from Pine Lake Preparatory made her and her students uncomfortable at the museum.
"We're standing outside the National African American Museum and Culture," the teacher in the video said. "And there's a class of students standing in front of us and the majority of them have on Trump hats and Make America Great Again. My students feel so uncomfortable."
Andrew Moceri, Pine Lake Prep’s executive director, said in a statement he apologized for allowing students to wear political messages on the trip and for the impact of those actions.
“There is an expected level of decorum in D.C., and even more so, when visiting memorials, monuments, and museums – we fell short," the statement reads.
Michael Stratford, a current student at the school, said he wasn’t surprised by the student's actions.
"The Black and brown community at Pine Lake has been dealing with this discrimination for a lot of years and we've been trying to fight against it for an equal amount of years," Stratford said.
Stratford said when he saw this video he knew exactly what to call it.
"I'd say that it was a mixture of direct racism and peer pressure," Stratford said.
Stratford wants his school’s administrators to be as direct in their language when speaking about the incident.
"Who does this statement, 'Make America Great Again', really benefit? Not the Black and brown people who have been discriminated against for their entire lives, it benefits white people," Stratford said.
The school sent out a message to parents directly after the events happened both recognizing and acknowledging the event, but stopped short of using words like racism.
In its statement to WCNC Charlotte, school leaders focused on the staff's failure to enforce a dress code.
"We have a dress code and expectations that we did not enforce. An unintended consequence of this was an open invitation for political discord, divisiveness, discomfort, and hurt. Hats, and more so, those with political messages, were inappropriate on the trip and in those spaces," the statement says.
A former student said the school missed the mark.
"Donald Trump has come out and said openly racist, open things against women, and it's just not respectful," Sophia Taffett said. "It's not right to wear apparel that supports that person in front of the museum that supports African American history."
Taffet said while she was at the school, she received pushback when trying to push the conversation of race and diversity forward.
"I think that this is a good lesson for the school on teaching them the value of making clear statements and being more out front about their views on specifically the topic supporting different marginalized groups," Taffet said. "Because we see that their lack of doing that exact thing has now caused them to look pretty bad."
The school has categorized the video as not telling the story of who the school is.
"Pine Lake Preparatory has prioritized diversity and inclusion over the past six years. More specifically, creating an environment that develops an appreciation for differences in perspective, privilege, background, culture, and identity," the statement said.
WCNC Charlotte spoke to a student who went on the D.C. trip and they described the school's response internally as performative. The student said parent chaperones and school officials were around as students bought the MAGA attire, saw the students in the attire, and said nothing to prevent the event from happening.
The student said they did not feel empowered to speak up then and still don't feel they have the support of the school to speak up and be listened to. Stratford, the former student, said this tracks with her past experiences.
"They like to put out statements, like quality statements and mission statements and things that are really just empty words," Stratford said.
Taffett, Stratford, the student who went on the trip, and several parents WCNC Charlotte spoke to described this event as one of many they've experienced that's questions the school's commitment to diversity and inclusion.
"This issue is not just Pine Lake, this is bigger than a school in North Carolina," Stratford said. "This is a national, international issue that needs to be handled. Including the difficulties that people will have with parents teaching their kids things and the kids influencing other kids."
See the full statement from Pine Lake Preparatory below:
"I apologize that our school allowed students to wear political messages on our trip to the National Museum of African American History in Washington, DC, this past week. I apologize for the impact of those actions. There is an expected level of decorum in D.C., and even more so, when visiting memorials, monuments, and museums – we fell short. We have a dress code and expectations that we did not enforce. An unintended consequence of this was an open invitation for political discord, divisiveness, discomfort, and hurt. Hats, and more so, those with political messages, were inappropriate on the trip and in those spaces.
The video does not tell the story of who we are and the work we do to improve so that all students and community members feel safe, valued,
and respected. In creating our school’s strategic plan, Pine Lake Preparatory has prioritized diversity and inclusion over the past six years. More specifically, creating an environment that develops an appreciation for differences in perspective, privilege, background, culture, and identity. We have invested time and resources to establish a DEI plan that includes three primary goals that have driven our work:
1. Strategic efforts to increase the diversity of students and staff at PLP.
2. Foster a culture of inclusion and belonging.
3. Create culturally competent individuals and opportunities for everyone to see themselves / feel represented in the curriculum.
We are a thoughtful and caring community. This work matters to us and the teachers and students on the trip. This incident demonstrates that we have more work to do. However, our Board, administration, and staff are committed to improving to create a caring and healthy community where everyone feels valued.