On the 11th anniversary of 9/11, students from a South Florida elementary school showed up at a Walmart to sing "God Bless America." But the group's excitement turned to disappointment.
Photographer: Taken by parent Michael DiSciascio/photo courtesy Sun Sentinel
The 75 young chorus members, ages 7 to 10, were born after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But they had learned from their families and teachers the significance of the date and what their singing meant.
The group's excitement turned to disappointment Tuesday evening when a Walmart representative refused to honor an agreement allowing the chorus to sing inside the store at 12800 Pines Blvd., according to Coconut Palm Elementary Principal Terri Thelmas.
In an attempt to "right a wrong," Thelmas said, school staff and parents led the singers outside the store, where they gathered under a nearby flag that was at half-staff. The children performed "God Bless America." The group had headed to its cars when police showed up in response to a report of a "flash mob situation."
Wednesday evening, responding to complaints about the incident, a Walmart spokeswoman apologized on behalf of the company.
"We regret this happened and apologize to the students, parents and the school for this experience," said the spokeswoman, Kayla Whaling, based in Bentonville, Ark. "Unfortunately, this was a situation of miscommunication, and it should have been handled differently."
She added, "We're also inviting the kids back to the store to help honor the victims and fallen heroes."
The performance at Walmart had been arranged as part of a school-related "I Will" campaign, which encourages people to help a stranger and do a public service on 9/11, Thelmas said.
Music instructor Annie Conner and the students envisioned a "flash mob" performance at Walmart, Thelmas said. In addition to remembering the victims, the act was meant to surprise and cheer up customers, Thelmas said.
Thelmas said that when she contacted the store last week, she was referred to a manager named Frank, who approved the in-store performance. But when the group showed up Tuesday night, Frank wasn't there, Thelmas said. Instead, another Walmart manager dismissed the idea, called the chorus "a liability" and turned the group away, Thelmas said. The employee added that Frank had been "fired," Thelmas said.
Walmart declined to discuss details.
After Tuesday's incident, parents took to Facebook to complain about the way they had been treated. Being turned away had brought some children to tears, given that the kids had practiced hard for the show.
"The wind was taken out of everybody's sails — from the parents to the teachers to the kids," said Michael DiScascio, 41, of Miramar, whose 9-year-old daughter was part of the chorus. "There was a lot of confusion and disappointment."
DiScascio's fourth-grade daughter, Adrianna, had watched documentaries and visited a 9/11 memorial in New York this summer, DiScascio said.
"She was really into the fact over what she was doing," DiScascio said. "One of my wife's friends passed away on 9/11."
When the children sang under the flag, their parents used cellphones to film the performance. It lasted little more than a minute and ended with cheers.
Pembroke Pines Officer Alex De La Paz said police were required to respond after Walmart called in a complaint.
"Some of the officers felt that it wasn't a police issue," De La Paz said. Ultimately, no action was necessary because "all the kids were already in their cars," De La Paz said.
Whaling, the Walmart spokeswoman, said Walmart plans to contact the school and arrange for the kids to come back. Thelmas said the school had not received the invitation by Wednesday evening, but that she would accept the opportunity.
"I'm a bigger person, and I will accept an apology," Thelmas said. "I think we would do it in a heartbeat."
Thelmas said the schoolchildren would perhaps have an easier time forgiving Walmart than their parents. "I know the children, and they forgive easily," she said.
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