The principal of an alternative school in New Orleans was asked to leave his post this week after he was pictured standing near a Confederate flag the morning before the city removed a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in downtown New Orleans.
Nicholas Dean, principal of Crescent Leadership Academy, confirmed Tuesday that he was told not to report to work for the next week or two after the photograph circulated on social media last weekend.
The charter school serves students in seventh through 12th grades who have been expelled from other schools because of behavioral or other problems.
The school's superintendent, Tracy Bennett-Joseph, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment but told nola.com earlier Tuesday that the school would be "investigating" the incident over the next two weeks.
The picture, which drew immediate attention on Facebook, depicts Dean standing near a man holding a Confederate flag who was part of a crowd that had gathered in Lee Circle. Dean said the photo was taken about 2:30 a.m. Friday, long before the Robert E. Lee monument was removed that afternoon.
When reached by phone, Dean said he was there because he thought the monument would be taken down in the night and he wanted to witness it happening.
He said he was there for just a few minutes and left once he saw there was no equipment in place to take the statue down. He insisted that the photograph was taken "out of context."
"I went to see history in the making," Dean said. "And now I am history."
The photograph of Dean, which was posted on Facebook by Sunday, had been shared more than 280 times by Tuesday afternoon. Several commenters expressed outrage after assuming from the picture that Dean had been attending protests as a pro-monument supporter.
"Why is this man, a principal of a school of black and minority students, advocating for monuments of hate?" asked Malik Bartholomew, a Dillard University employee and resident who shared the photograph. "The men whose monuments he was supporting were members of the Confederacy and they were against black education."
Other Facebook commenters agreed with Bartholomew. But some questioned Dean's suspension.
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"He can believe in what he wants," wrote Roshonda Smith. "As long as his beliefs don't spill into my child's education or well being, do what you please."
Dean, however, said they all got it wrong. He wasn't there to express an opinion one way or the other, he said.
"While I understand both sides of this highly charged debate, I went to the Lee monument for all the right reasons," Dean said. "I went because I am a historian, educator and New Orleans resident who wanted to observe this monumental event."
He called the social media posts "fake-news character assassination."
"People who know me know that I am a crusader for children and I fight tirelessly on their behalf," he added. "In my 10 years of working with large minority populations, I’ve never been accused of racism. I am sorry that my staff, students, friends and family have to witnesses this."
Crescent Leadership Academy had 86 students enrolled in October, 84 of whom were black, according to the state Department of Education.