Waving and smiling in their elegant dresses, Daffodil Festival princesses will be the stars of Saturday’s Junior Daffodil Parade in Tacoma’s Proctor District, and again Sunday in the Marine Parade.
There are 25 of them — one more than expected— and documents show how that came about: It is the story of a perfect storm of human foibles, a tale that sheds light on how adults can differ about public perception of children with disabilities.
The royal court’s unusual distinction of having two girls from one high school hasn’t affected its waving, smiling, all-systems-go demeanor.
But new information has come to light about why Emerald Ridge in Puyallup was the sole high school allowed to nominate two princesses — Kiasa Sims and Marissa Modestowicz, who eventually was crowned Daffodil queen. School district documents show that what the festival has termed a “flawed judging process” led to an official reprimand of the Emerald Ridge teacher who guided the judges and the school’s princess candidates.
The information, obtained by The News Tribune, is contained in documents produced by the Puyallup School District during an internal investigation of the Oct. 18 princess selection at Emerald Ridge.
The school district issued its reprimand in November. The teacher, Laurie Brandon, initially sought to block the release of documents related to her disciplinary action. The News Tribune challenged her action in court, and prevailed.
In its letter of reprimand, the district alleges that Brandon discriminated against Kiasa, a special-needs student with some learning delays, “by intervening and changing the outcome on a decision that was made by a panel of judges to have (Kiasa) represent Emerald Ridge High School as Daffodil Princess for 2014.”
As previously reported by the News Tribune, Marissa was initially announced publicly as the school’s princess choice. But Kiasa had been the judges’ original pick when they voted Oct. 18. For a brief time, both girls believed the tiara would revert to Kiasa.
Then in late October, Emerald Ridge Principal Karey Johnson released a statement to the student body that “mistakes were made by adults in this situation.”
School officials decided on the dual nomination. The Daffodil Festival went along, even though it went against festival precedent. Festival officials have said they won’t allow it to happen again.
Documents released by the school district contain accounts from both Brandon and from the district staff and community members who served as judges in the Emerald Ridge selection.
The district letter to Brandon concludes that she intervened in the judging process, convincing judges to rescind their vote for Kiasa and choose another girl. The letter said she asked the judges to re-vote because she believed support for Kiasa was “strictly because of her disabilities.”
District officials said Brandon’s behavior violated district nondiscrimination policies.
Brandon was removed from her role as school daffodil coordinator, prohibited from serving as chairwoman for other extracurricular activities and ordered to attend diversity training.
According to Brandon’s own notes included in the documents, she said that on judging night, she picked up the envelope containing the name of the girl whom the judges had chosen. She said that when she read Kiasa’s name through the envelope, she felt she had to say something to the judges.
Her belief was that Kiasa wouldn’t be able to fulfill some princess duties, such as reading to kids at Pierce County libraries, helping younger students with homework or appearing before elected government bodies.
Brandon wrote that she felt the judges had been persuaded, particularly by one judge, to select Kiasa because of her disability. But she felt an obligation to explain that being a Daffodil princess “is not about wearing a pretty dress and tiara — it is all about hard work and endurance for the young woman and her family.”
She feared the festival could not provide the kind of support she felt Kiasa needed. She later told the Emerald Ridge principal: “I just knew I had to stop a train wreck before it became unstoppable. There was no way she could have gone on.”
Janet Storm, one of the judges, wrote that those who had originally selected Kiasa felt she had touched their hearts “in a bold and profound way that the other two girls hadn’t.”
“There was nothing wrong with the other two gals,” Storm wrote. “We just felt Kiasa had a heart for the people and would send a message that you don’t have to be perfect to be a princess.”
That October night, Brandon persuaded the judges to set aside their initial choice of Kiasa and re-vote. That’s when they selected Marissa.
Brandon’s attorney, Mark Olson, said Brandon could not speak with The News Tribune because she was “under a gag order” from the school district. But he said Brandon felt the judges ignored the judging criteria, with many not even filling out scoring sheets. She also noted that Kiasa should have been disqualified because her speech went over the one-minute time limit by 48 seconds.
Olson said that the district “rushed to judgment” against Brandon after a hasty investigation, that she was made a scapegoat by the district, and that she was simply doing her job as expected by the Daffodil Festival.
In a previous News Tribune article, Kiasa said she was happy that she and Marissa got to serve as royalty together.
“When I was a little girl, I told my parents that when I grow up, I want to be a princess,” she said.
She got her wish. And in her princess speech the night of the Daffodil Queen coronation, she talked about the challenge of dealing with her special needs.
Despite the behind-the-scenes drama, Kiasa’s mom, Cindy Sims, said that being part of the Daffodil Court has been a good experience for her daughter, and that Kiasa received the support she needed from the festival.
Serving as a princess has taught her daughter about leadership and “how to be a better community person,” Sims said. One of the best aspects, she added, was the solidarity that developed among the girls.
“It’s like they have 24 new sisters for life,” she said.
Festival director Steve James added: “Something like this could have torn the girls apart. It didn’t. The girls have grown through the process. It’s been a fantastic year.”