Tour guide accused of making disparaging remarks to students on field trip

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Some say a school field trip to a popular pumpkin patch was ruined by a comment from a tour guide to dozens of kids from Thomasboro Academy, most of whom are minorities.

“Once the children were brought to the tour guide, she said, ‘You’re not here to pick cotton today. You’re not here to pick fruit. You were here to pick pumpkins,” school volunteer Kathy Capps said.

Capps has been volunteering at Thomasboro for 15 years and said upset teachers confided in her about the remark.

The school’s principal told Eyewitness News anchor Liz Foster that she and the assistant principal called and spoke to the owners of Hall Family Farm, but didn’t feel the response was sufficient. That’s when Capps went to the farm.

“These kinds of comments hurt. They’re not appropriate, and I told him how upset the school was,” Capps said.

Kevin Hall, who owns the Ballantyne farm, said tour guides talk to kids about what they’re at the farm to see, and educate them. He insists the longtime employee meant no harm.

“It was an extremely poor choice of words, stupid, but there was no malice,” Hall said.

Hall told Channel 9 he apologized to school administrators over the phone and the employee herself called to apologize.

“There have been zero issues in 11 years of doing business so, it’s very unsettling,” Hall said.

But Capps expects more. She wants the Halls to apologize to school administrators in person.

“I look at those kids like they’re my kids,” Capps said. “They belong to our community and it’s not acceptable.”

Some people on social media suggested the Halls fire the employee who made the insensitive comment. Hall told Channel 9 she is a longtime family friend, and he would close down the business before firing her.

A spokesperson for CMS told Foster the district is looking into the concerns and takes them seriously.

Full statement from Hall Family Farm:

"I am greatly distressed to report that today I was made aware of a public allegation of racism against a longtime employee of our farm and against Hall Family Farm, presumably for not dealing with the matter appropriately.  These allegations arise from a single incident that occurred on an elementary school tour on October 3rd.  This post is written to present the facts to our many thousands of loyal customers that have visited our farm in the 11 years that we have been in the u-pick strawberry and pumpkin business. 

October 3rd was a miserably hot 90-degree fall day.  The incident occurred on the pumpkin picking portion of the tour where one or two classes are taken to the field by one of our tour guides and given a short educational presentation about the fruit that they are about to pick, including facts about growing, harvesting, using the fruit, and in the case of strawberries, proper picking procedure to protect the plants.  We have never had a written script to follow and each guide speaks freely.  In 11 years of conducting field trips, I estimate that we have had less than 15 tour guides.  Most of the guides begin their presentation with some humorous back and forth to get the students attention.  A typical start to the presentation would be as follows:  Guide, "Students! Are  you here to pick squash?"  Students, "No! " Guide, "Are you here to pick cucumbers?"  Students, "No!"  Guide, "Are you here to pick strawberries?" Students, "Yes!"  The details vary, but this is representative of the beginning of the picking portion of the tour.  In this incident, the guide started with:  Guide, "Today I'm happy that you aren't cotton pickers or nose pickers. You are pumpkin pickers!" This is the basis of the allegation of racism.

Our accounting records show that this was the first time that this CMS school has attended a field trip to our farm.  Not a single teacher or accompanying adult made us aware that day of any issue that they had with the tour.  As I stated earlier, the day was miserably hot.  Our staff worked diligently to make their field trip as enjoyable as possible.  Multiple students were given free cold drinks when they exhibited signs of heat stress.  One teacher did, in fact, present signs of heat exhaustion, so our staff brought her into the sales tent where she was able to cool off in front of our cooler.  Several of the teachers from the school purchased funnel cakes and drinks after the incident occurred.  The school stayed on the farm a typical amount of time, and at no time were we made aware that they had any issue with the field trip in general, or with a staff member in particular.

The next day my wife took a phone call from an administrator at the school.  An immediate accusation of racism was made.  My wife apologized profusely and attempted to explain the situation regarding the pumpkin picking narrative.  She immediately informed the female tour guide who led that particular tour about the accusation.   Our employee related to us in detail exactly what she recalled saying.  Later that day she voluntarily called the school and spoke to an assistant principal.  She apologized profusely and explained the situation.  She was in tears by the end of the conversation. 

The next day a woman from St. Luke Church came to the farm and asked to speak to the owners. She stated that her church sponsored this school and she was here to hear our side of the story.   Both my wife and I spoke to her at length and explained to her exactly what happened.  The woman informed us that this same school had accused the Charlotte Ballet of making a racist comment on a previous field trip, and suggested that we offer something to de-escalate the situation.  She then suggested that we offer the school a refund.  My response was that I didn't believe that our employee said or did anything that was intentionally racist or disrespectful; that offering a refund could be interpreted as an admission of guilt; that offering a refund would not necessarily, in the words of the St. Luke woman, "make this go away".  I said that she made a poor choice of words, but there was absolutely no intent to be disparaging or condescending to these students.  I explained to her that our guides have made the same introduction, sometimes with the same word choice, sometimes with different words,  to tens of thousands of students for the past 11 years.  We have not had a single incident like this in any of those thousands of field trips by preschools, daycare centers, private schools, CMS schools, Union County schools, Lancaster County schools, or York County schools.

The woman from St. Luke raised a concern that the school administrators felt that my wife laughed at them in their phone conversation.  My wife admitted that she responded to the immediate accusation with a tired "laugh".  Bear in mind that this incident occurred during one of the most frustrating, difficult seasons we have experienced as farmers.  The extreme heat and humidity ruined our entire crop of pumpkins before we even opened.  The financial loss was thousands of dollars.  Then Hurricane Florence severely damaged the best corn maze we have grown in years.  Then the extreme heat kept customers away for the first 3 weeks that we were open.  Then we lost an entire tractor-trailer load of mountain-grown pumpkins to the extreme heat, another loss of thousands of dollars.  When my wife answered that phone call, she was exasperated, frustrated and demoralized, and the immediate accusation of racism added one more blow. 

At some point in the conversation with the woman from St. Luke, the topic of firing the employee arose.  I stated bluntly that I will shut down our business for good before I fire this employee.  My wife offered to personally sit down and talk with the school's administrators.  Our conversation was cordial, factual, and ended pleasantly. 

I want to conclude this message with my personal testament to the quality and decency of all our employees.  Our employees are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, Caucasian and African American and Asian American, I am Asian American, and we all work together to provide a wholesome, family-centric farm experience for all customers.  In particular, I want to share with you the character of the tour guide whose extremely poor choice of words sparked this incident.  She has been a dear friend of my family since 1992.  She and many members of her family have been faithful employees from the very first day that we opened in 2008.  She treats every human being with respect and kindness.  For the past two years, in the off season, she and her husband have spent the winter months caring for orphans and teaching English in the Philippines and Thailand at their own personal expense.  Yes, she made an extremely poor choice of words, but she made every effort to apologize and dispel the misunderstanding directly to the persons that were offended.  My family's friendship with she and her family is vastly more important to me than the continued operation of our farm, and I will not punish her for a stupid choice of words, a comment made with absolutely no innuendo or ill will.

Kevin Hall

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