Jessie Skyy Turney-Zapata, her siblings and her parents were piled on her bed Tuesday night, ready to watch a livestream of the 16-year-old’s high school graduation ceremony. Her mom had texted the livestream link to friends and family in three separate group chats, reminding them to tune in at 6 p.m. sharp. The house hummed with anticipation.
But as Turney-Zapata and her family watched, they saw that she was left out of the nearly two-hour Covenant Christian Academy celebration in Huntsville, Alabama. Her name was never called. Her accomplishments were never recited. The only record of her having attended the school was in a brief slideshow of pictures of all the new graduates. Texts and calls flooded in from family members asking what had happened, inquiring whether the senior had actually graduated, even though she has already started an online post-secondary program at Full Sail University.
Turney-Zapata, 16, had chosen not to attend the graduation ceremony in person out of concern for the spread of COVID-19. When her mom told the school of her decision and said the family would be watching the ceremony online, the school superintendent replied that they would miss her, according to emails reviewed by HuffPost. Nothing was said about removing her name from the ceremony.
The teen and her family believe she was intentionally snubbed, making her wonder if she had essentially been forced to choose between attending a crowded event and getting recognized or prioritizing social distancing and being effectively erased from the ceremony. As one of the few Black students at the school, she said she had been repeatedly isolated and singled out over the years. Now Turney-Zapata found herself wondering if the school’s decision to not speak her name was racially motivated.
“It was bad enough I couldn’t participate and I missed prom. I had worked so hard to graduate early and get to this point ― to find out that nobody was even going to acknowledge it, it really hurt, it really hurt,” said Turney-Zapata, a singer, who skipped a grade and is now studying for an audio arts certificate online.
In response to questions about the incident, Covenant Christian Academy said that it did not single out Turney-Zapata and that the action reflected a long-standing policy to leave out the names of students who do not attend their graduation ceremony in person. In sending the Turney-Zapata family a link to the livestream, the school did not mean to convey that the teen would be included in the event, wrote Greg Gillman, executive pastor of the Rock Family Worship Center, a church associated with the school. Four students in total chose not to attend the graduation ceremony this year, and none of the four was mentioned during the ceremony or in the printed program.
The private school’s long-standing policy was apparently not reconsidered in light of the coronavirus pandemic. There were “no others who were expressing concerns to not attend over COVID19, so a change of policy was not considered in the moment,” said Gillman.
Five hundred people were allowed to attend the event at Covenant Christian Academy, with each of the graduating students able to invite up to 12 guests, according to emails reviewed by HuffPost. Gillman noted that such numbers comply with Alabama guidelines and that the school took precautions like separating every row in the audience and leaving seats between households.
“Please rest assured that neither Sylvia [DeVine, the school superintendent] nor anyone else at CCA treated Jessie differently because she chose not to walk in the graduation ceremony due to concerns over COVID-19, which was absolutely her right and prerogative, or for any other reason,” wrote Gillman. “Sylvia and CCA were simply following their standard, long-standing practices for graduation ceremonies at CCA and treated her absence in the same manner as others who chose not to walk for graduation this year or in any prior years.”
Additionally, Gillman dismissed concerns that Turney-Zapata may have been treated differently because of her race in this or other incidents over the years, stating that “neither Jessie nor her family were ever subjected to any policies that others were not subjected to in like fashion.” He said that he was shocked by such an allegation: “If there ever were any such incident, it certainly should have been brought to someone’s attention at CCA long ago so it could have been swiftly addressed.”
The school’s ceremony ― originally scheduled for May but delayed because of COVID-19 ― appears to have flouted at least some of Alabama’s social distancing rules, though the school did not specifically respond to questions on this matter by press time. At the start of the ceremony, the students crowded together on the stage were wearing masks, but as the ceremony proceeded, most shed their facial covering, video shows.
In Alabama, people are currently required to maintain six feet of distance from those not in their household at “non-work gatherings” and to wear masks in public when they are within 6 feet of others. Video of the event shows that those rules were disregarded.
The obvious question then is why the school asked students to choose between attending a crowded event to be honored for their accomplishments or not being honored at all at a time when COVID-19 cases in Alabama are on the rise. Indeed, a pastor at the Rock Family Worship Center recently tested positive for the virus. The local public school system also held in-person graduation ceremonies this year.
After watching the ceremony from home, Turney-Zapata burned with embarrassment as those texts poured in from family members asking why her name wasn’t called. She immediately went into the living room to play with her siblings in an effort to distract herself. She couldn’t ignore her parents’ sorrow, though. She went to write in her journal and then cried with her mom until falling asleep.
“For me looking back on it, the only thing I can think of ― there’s a little Black girl, trying to get something, trying to jump past everybody else, and at the end of the day, if she just doesn’t want to come over here, then she’s not going to get acknowledged,” the teen said.
Children who “attend” Covenant Christian Academy are actually home-schooled. Per Alabama law, home-schooled children must still technically be enrolled in a private school. Home-schooling families like Turney-Zapata’s use the schools for course materials, extracurricular activities and field trips.
Jessie’s mother, Hannah Turney-Zapata, said the family often felt singled out at Covenant Christian Academy. Hannah, who is Black, is married to a white man, a fact that she felt put her family under additional scrutiny from school leaders. Ironically, she had chosen to home-school her children in part over fears of racism within the local public school system.
Earlier this year, a school administrator singled out the mother and daughter by asking if they were immigrants ― even though Jessie had been enrolled at the school since she was 3, they said.
“I don’t want to be the angry Black woman and I don’t want to see what’s not there, but every year, every single year, it’s just a problem. I’ve talked to the principal too many times,” the mother said.
“They lose my paperwork every year. I have to resubmit things every year. I’ve been told to follow rules no other family has to follow.”
This week, family members from as far away as the U.S. Virgin Islands tuned in to watch the teen graduate. On Wednesday, the younger Turney-Zapata posted a Facebook video explaining what had happened.
“Even though they knew I would be watching it with my whole family, they never said my name. They proceeded to say that those called out were the class of 2020, which excluded me. It hurts not getting acknowledged like the rest,” she said on the video. “With that being said, I do not regret protecting my family [by staying home].”
Hannah Turney-Zapata said the simple act of wearing a mask or seeking to socially distance has become exceptionally polarized in their community, and now, her daughter may have borne the brunt of such divisiveness.
“Wearing a mask is not about keeping people safe in Huntsville, Alabama,” said the mother. “It’s about being one of those crazy liberals. It’s not about the disease.”