Nancy Gordeuk, director of TNT Academy in Stone Mountain, said "my emotions got the best of me" when she made the controversial remark. A video captured Gordeuk standing at the podium in front of a live microphone as she clearly blurts out, "Look who's leaving, all the black people."
The remark prompted cries from the audience as graduates stormed off the stage and the valedictorian shrank from the podium. The video spread across social media over the weekend, prompting outraged calls for Gordeuk to lose her job.
Based on her behavior, some in attendance questioned the sincerity of Gordeuk's apology. They say she created a hostile environment long before the offending remark, one that "felt more like a roast than a graduation ceremony," in the words of one attendee.
The mother of one graduate says she wants her money back: $300 in senior fees and $135 for a diploma. That's on top of the $200 a month paid for son to earn a high school diploma through the non-traditional study center.
"I was in complete shock," said Linda Haywood, who shared her grievances in a post on CNN's Facebook page
. "This was supposed to be a proud day for my son and my family. For the ceremony to turn out the way it turned out, I don't think anyone should have to pay for that."
The TNT Academy website
describes the school as a college preparatory program that provides credits for a high school diploma through independent study and teacher-assisted instruction. The website says it has been approved by the Georgia Accrediting Commission, the Chancellor's Office of the University of Georgia and the Georgia HOPE scholarship program for non-traditional study centers.
The Georgia Accrediting Commission did not return a request for comment over the weekend.
The website describes Gordeuk as the school's founder, saying she has more than 30 years of experience teaching in Georgia. The website says she "just completed courses" for a master's degree in "educational leadership and supervision."
Haywood said her son arrived at the school in October after struggling in public school. Through weekly assignments and twice-weekly classroom sessions, he earned his high school diploma and invited his family to Lilburn First Baptist Church for graduation.
The situation started to get awkward after the first song, when Gordeuk told the audience to silence crying babies or leave, Haywood said.
Suzette Walden Cole, who traveled from Colorado to see her nephew graduate, remembers Gordeuk's words more vividly: "If you have babies, you either need to tape their mouths shut or get them out of here."
The situation grew more uncomfortable when Gordeuk offered individual commentary about each student as they received their diplomas, the two attendees said.
Some of her words were complimentary, Cole said, recalling statements to the effect of "this guy was one of the hardest workers I know" or "we're going to see her name in lights some day in the future."
For most of the non-white students, however, Gordeuk made derisive comments about their academic struggles, Cole said.
"What should have been a joyous, momentous occasion turned into a 'pit' in family members' stomachs as we waited to hear what direction she was going to take her comments about our own graduate," Cole said.
Haywood said Gordeuk's comments on her son focused how he enrolled at TNT because "he couldn't make it in public school."
For all intents and purposes, the ceremony had officially ended before the scene devolved into chaos. The graduates had received their diplomas, Gordeuk had dismissed the graduates, and the processional music had started, according to Gordeuk and multiple witness accounts.
Then, Gordeuk told CNN, she realized she forgot to introduce the valedictorian to the podium for his speech. She called off the music and urged the audience to stay in their seats.
As the student tried to deliver his speech, an audience member disrupted the proceedings by walking in front of the stage with an iPad, Gordeuk said. When he ignored her request to sit down, Gordeuk called on security to escort him from the floor.
But Cole and Haywood say it was Gordeuk who unnecessarily escalated the incident by being hostile to the man with the iPad.
That's when people -- including Haywood -- started getting up and walking out with their families, they said.
Cue the video.
Gordeuk apologized for her "offensive comment" in an email to CNN.
"I deeply apologize for my actions made in the emotional state of trying to let this last student finish his speech. I take a personal interest in the success of every student that comes through our doors without regard to their race, religion or ethnicity."
But Haywood and Cole aren't buying it. They say Gordeuk is trying to minimize her actions by making the man with the iPad the trigger for behavior.
"However, he wasn't a distraction until she made his presence a distraction," Cole said.
Additionally, there's been no indication that she has any remorse for the tone she set, Cole said.
"What was captured on the viral video was the tipping point, not the starting point for the frustration of those in attendance," she said.
"Finally, it's just hard for these students to have their milestone moment turn into a nightmare that will live on in perpetuity as they reflect on this special day."