A Wal-Mart spokesperson has apologized for one manager's handling… (Patrick Fallon / Bloomberg )
A Florida principal's effort to teach children to honor the heroes of Sept. 11 turned into an impromptu lesson about red tape and liability -- and a public relations nightmare for retail giant Wal-Mart.
A manager at Wal-Mart's Pembroke Pines, Fla., store barred a choir made up of 8-, 9- and 10-year-olds from singing "God Bless America" inside the store Tuesday, the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to their school principal. The manager said the children were a "liability" and then called police to remove them from the property, the principal said.
The incident has made headlines nationwide, and led to an outpouring of phone calls, emails and letters to the school, Terri Thelmas, principal of Coconut Palm Elementary School in Miramar, Fla., told the Times.
"Never in a million years would I have expected this," she said. "I can't believe how this has turned into a national story. I am getting calls of sympathy from all over the country. And calls from people who want our children to come out and sing for them. So I guess something good has come out of it."
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said there were no excuses to be made. "We regret that this happened and sincerely apologize to all of those involved for this experience," Kayla Whaling told the Times. "We recognize that this situation should have been handled differently." The incident is being reviewed internally, she said.
In the meantime, the retail giant has extended an invitation to the school to come back and perform.
Here's what happened, according to the principal:
The schoolchildren were participating in an "I Will" campaign, a program to teach kids -- many of whom were born after the terrorist attacks -- to honor the anniversary with volunteer service and tribute. Thelmas said the group decided to go out into the community and sing "God Bless America" as a way to "cheer people up" on a solemn day and honor the sacrifices made in the wake of the tragedy.
Thelmas said she thought the Wal-Mart store was an obvious location for the performance: "Wal-Mart is the all-American store, hence we chose Wal-Mart. And we thought community was welcome at Wal-Mart." She said she called the store several days ago and spoke in detail with a manager named Frank. "I talked to him and said, 'Hey, this is what we want to do,' and he said, 'I think it's a fantastic idea.' "
But when Thelmas and her young choir of about 75 children showed up Tuesday -- along with a throng of parents poised to take pictures and video -- they were met at the door by a different manager.
"She blocked me at the door; she didn't even let me in the store," Thelmas said. "She said, 'No, they're a liability.' "
When Thelmas tried to explain that she had already made arrangements for the performance, she said she was told that Frank was no longer employed at the store and no one else had any information about a choir performance.
Determined to make lemonade out of lemons, Thelmas told the manger she would usher the youth outside to sing their song underneath an American flag flying at half-staff in recognition of the anniversary. But the manager said that was not an option.
"She said, 'You will get off my property right now or I will call the police,' " the principal recalled. "I was shocked.... Everyone was upset. I was upset. The kids were upset. The parents were upset."
The principal decided to go ahead with a quick version of "God Bless America" anyway and in the middle of the song was alerted that police were on their way. "I just couldn't believe it," she said.
Thelmas said the police officers were very kind and polite, and a bit embarrassed that they had to respond to such a call.