KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Despite some calls for his resignation over past social media posts and a professional reprimand, Freedom Inc., a legendary political action group that has helped elect hundreds of African American lawmakers, and a bevy of Missouri’s major labor organizations are forcefully standing behind Rep. Mark Sharp.
Freedom Inc.’s strong stance defending Sharp was reaffirmed after information provided from an opposition research file was printed by the Kansas City Star last week from an incident several years ago.
This was echoed by the preeminently respected former state Sen. Kiki Curls, previous co-holder of the presidency of Freedom Inc.
“He has offered a sincere apology to his constituents for statements he made almost 10 years ago, in his early 20s. We trust his leadership, and he’s doing a good job in Jefferson City,” Curls said.
Freedom Inc. isn’t the only group staying with Sharp. All of the major teacher and pro-public education groups have maintained their support, including the Missouri State Teachers Association Legislative Action Committee, Better Schools for Missouri (the Missouri School Administrators PAC), the American Federation of Teachers Local 691 Committee on Political Education, and Missouri NEA Political Action Committee.
In addition, major labor groups including the Missouri AFL-CIO, the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO, the Greater Kansas City Building & Construction Trades Council, the Service Employees International Union Missouri/Kansas State Council, the Missouri State Council of Machinists Political Action Committee, Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, and Taxpayers Unlimited have remained committed to Sharp.
“Mark Sharp has been a strong voice for Labor and the working men and women in Missouri. He grew up understanding the needs of his district and works hard to make sure their voices are heard. Inaccurate statements being made about Mark by others should not be supported by his opponent in an effort to win an election,” said Alise Martiny, business manager of the Kansas City Building Trades Council. “We need a strong voice and diversity representing Missourians, and we believe Mark is that voice. Rep. Sharp maintains the full story of what happened at the school hasn’t been properly told.”
It’s been more than three years since Sharp taught in Caddo Mills, a district about an hour outside Dallas, Texas. While he was there, Sharp, 34, said he experienced the same discriminatory behavior that many Black Americans have shed light on in recent weeks. It was that climate of alleged discrimination that ultimately caused him to resign before the school year even ended.
Sharp said he hoped those dark memories were behind him. But thanks to recent postings on a since-deleted anonymous Twitter account and the Kansas City Star article, the Democratic lawmaker is now reliving the “racial discrimination” he said he experienced.
As has been publicized this week, Sharp received a reprimand from the Texas Education Agency (TEA), the state government agency responsible for overseeing public schools in the state of Texas, in September 2017. The TEA found Sharp violated state code by “making inappropriate use of school computers.”
But Sharp, who was elected to the Missouri House in a special election last year, said the investigation came after he resigned from the school. In a lengthy interview with The Missouri Times, he alleged the school complained to TEA in retaliation because administrators thought he would attempt to shed light on the “discriminatory practices” he said he experienced while there.
Caddo Mills superintendents and administrators declined to comment on either the reprimand or the allegations about a climate of racism in the school.
‘Hanging there for all students to see’
Sharp’s first semester at Caddo Mills, where he taught a business class during the 2016-2017 school year, went off without a hitch — despite having to pass a house flying a Confederate battle flag sitting next to the football field each day, Sharp said. He was the only Black male teacher and coach at the school, he said.
“This was a rural school district out in east Texas,” Sharp said. “I knew the area was probably one of those areas you didn’t want to be hanging around after the sun went down because the house right next to the school’s football field had a huge Confederate battle flag just sitting outside. I knew what I was getting myself into, but I just didn’t know how bad it would get.”
According to the latest U.S. Census data, nearly 90 percent of the more than 9,700 people in Caddo Mills is white.
Sharp’s problems that second semester hinged on two events, he said: Black History Month and a school play. At his previous school, Sharp helped organize Black History Month by bringing in unique speakers, and he hoped to do the same at his new school. However, Caddo Mills did not recognize the annual February observance and “blocked [him] from teaching” anything on the topic, Sharp said.
In addition, Sharp said the school put on a play that utilized a large flag with a swastika twice in that school year.
“They had this swastika flag on the stage for 60 days at a time, once in October and again in February. When kids went to lunch, they saw this flag flying,” he said. “It just sat there. … It was just there visibly hanging there for all students to see.”
In a photo provided to The Missouri Times, the red flag of Nazi German can be seen hanging from what appears to be a stage in the school cafeteria with students sitting nearby.
“It was a combination of not recognizing Black History Month; it was a combination of, quite frankly, driving past the Confederate flag; and then to make matters worse, here’s the swastika to look at during Black History Month,” Sharp said. “I had pretty much had it up to there with that school, and it was clear they had it up to here with me.”
That fact was driven home a few weeks later when he was pulled over on a dark country road after coaching a middle school ball game.
“The officer was yelling at me for not pulling over fast enough on this dark road. [He] kept me there [for] over an hour saying I had thrown something out of the window when I never did. Even though I had on all of my Caddo Mills Adidas coaching gear and teacher ID, they didn’t think I worked for the district,” Sharp said. “Dashcam [footage] later showed that a piece of trash kicked up from underneath my car. It was quite frankly the most frightening time of my life.”
“It was not an appropriate work environment, that’s for sure.”
So Sharp resigned in late February before the end of Black History Month.
Sharp doesn’t deny making an error in judgment by being on social media during school hours — although he maintains other teachers made use of it during school time as well.
More than a month after Sharp resigned, he said he received a letter from the TEA alerting him to an investigation into his use of school computers at Caddo Mills.
“Everything I did there was to try to bring diversity and inclusion and really try to teach some Black history lessons in what was a very one-sided school district,” Sharp said.
The specific incident at hand stemmed from a classroom situation in early February. While using a projector, Sharp believed his computer was locked on the screen he intended to show students. He flipped to his Facebook to check a written message from an ex-girlfriend which was explicit in nature. The projector had not been locked on an assignment, and students were “briefly” exposed to the message.
“It was an honest accident,” Sharp said. At the time, Sharp said the principal assured him “we make mistakes” and “just don’t do it again.”
Sharp was also reprimanded for looking up firearm sales on a school computer. He said he was researching guns to purchase so he could go hunting with other male coaches at the school, something he said was a pastime of his colleagues that he hoped to participate in to “fit in.”
“I believe they did this as retaliation because they thought I was going to file a complaint against the school for wrongful treatment. I believe this was their attempt to [discredit] or take any credit away from my story,” Sharp said.
The final TEA agreement, dated September 2017, issued an “inscribed reprimand.” The state of Texas defines it as: “the Board’s formal, published censure appearing on the face of an educator’s certificate. A reprimand does not affect the validity of an educator’s certificate.”
Sharp did not file a formal complaint. He transferred his teaching certificate to Missouri and taught at KIPP KC, a public charter school in downtown Kansas City, for two years before he was elected to the General Assembly in late 2019.
“This type of retaliation is why African American teachers are silenced. They see things and can’t speak up because they know this is what will happen. It’s no coincidence that there are less than 2 percent African American male teachers in America,” Sharp said.
A teacher at KIPP KC who worked with Sharp, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of social media harassment, told The Missouri Times: “Mark was an outstanding teacher and a benefit to KIPP. I could feel the hurt in his voice when he would talk about how the retribution he faced for trying to start a Black History Month program, and you could see how much KIPP’s Black History Month celebration meant to him.”
‘It WAS NOT us’
Sharp blamed his Democratic primary opponent, Laura Loyacono, for leaking the information about his reprimand. He pointed to her campaign manager, Cody Atkinson, as having filed a records request to obtain the TEA’s report.
In an email to The Missouri Times, Atkinson does not deny requesting the information from the TEA and perusing Sharp’s past social media posts but maintained neither he nor the campaign shared the details of their findings except to party leadership for “internal deliberation.”
The story began to circulate shortly after a poll by Remington Research Group showed Sharp leading Loyacono 42 percent to 19 percent.
“We DID NOT post anything on social media, and we resent the effort of Mr. Sharp to smear Laura’s unrivaled dedication to the [Kansas City] community to cover up and deflect from his own actions and words,” Atkinson said in an email to The Missouri Times. “It is unfortunate that Mr. Sharp only sees his past social media use as ‘politically incorrect’ rather than dehumanizing and derogatory toward women and the LGBTQ community.”
As for if anyone on the campaign could have been behind the anonymous Twitter account or other social media postings, Atkinson stated, “It WAS NOT us.”
While Atkinson did not say who on the Democratic committee the opposition research was provided to or who delivered the opposition research to the Kansas City Star to print, Sharp responded that the anonymous posts, “came from a place of hatred and discriminatory practices. I can’t believe my opponent put this out there”.
Sharp has also come under fire for posts he made on Facebook nearly a decade ago that were called “a stunning and disturbing history of misogyny and homophobia” by Atkinson.
“Those posts were dumb, they were stupid, they were immature. I don’t know what I was thinking when I posted them,” Sharp said. “When I look at those posts, I don’t recognize the person that posted them. I was just out of college. … I’m not sure what I was doing.”
Even after the opposition research file dropped, Rep. Ashley Bland Manlove, who serves as vice-chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, affirmed her support for Sharp.
“It has been a pleasure working with Mark during his first session,” she said. “He showed great dedication during debate and voting. He also brought great attention to ‘Blair’s Law.’ I am proud of the man he has become.”
The race in HD 36 between Sharp and Loyacono has been contentious from the start. Loyacono works as the director of community engagement for Kansas State University and is from the Verona Hills neighborhood.
As of the April 15 filings, she had $14,248 on hand compared to Sharp’s $2,072 ahead of the August primary.
However, Freedom Inc. has a strong record recently in winning elections with aggressive ground games and investments in Democratic primaries.
“Rep. Sharp is a board member of Freedom, Inc., and the organization stands behind him. He has been given a full vote of confidence, and we’re waging a strong campaign on his behalf,” Curls said.
Kaitlyn Schallhorn is the editor of The Missouri Times. She joined the newspaper in early 2019 after working as a reporter for Fox News in New York City.
Throughout her career, Kaitlyn has covered political campaigns across the U.S., including the 2016 presidential election, and humanitarian aid efforts in Africa and the Middle East.
She is a native of Missouri who studied journalism at Winthrop University in South Carolina. She is also an alumna of the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C.
Contact Kaitlyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.