The ding from Kurt Browning’s iPhone sounded all weekend as parents bombarded the Pasco superintendent to support Jeff Swymer, who resigned as Wiregrass Ranch’s baseball coach last week rather than face a likely yearlong suspension for drinking beer on a trip for a school-sponsored tournament.
Browning received two-dozen emails from parents plus more than 100 others from an online petition that had 326 signatures as of Monday afternoon. Most of them focused on two points: the severity of the yearlong suspension Swymer could have received and the district’s investigative process.
“We don’t think as a group that the school board had a full understanding of what transpired here,” said Chris Wood, a baseball parent and the Bulls’ JV coach who started the online petition.
Here’s what happened, according to Wood:
During a trip to Fort Lauderdale for a spring break tournament, some parents organized a bowling outing in the evening after that day’s games. The parents purchased some pitchers of beer and poured a glass for Swymer as the players bowled a few lanes over.
“I didn’t even think twice about it,” said Mike Campoamor, an assistant coach and player's parent who does not drink.
Swymer drank two beers, according to district documents. He then gave Wood — who did not drink that night — the keys to his car so no players would think he was drinking and driving.
“Now I ask you, does this sound like a person with direct disregard for his responsibilities?” Rich Piazza, a Wiregrass assistant and baseball parent, said in an email to administrators.
Yes, according to the superintendent.
“Have our standards changed so much that it’s okay to drink in front of kids?” Browning said Monday at the district’s offices. “I must be missing the boat.”
Browning said he has a responsibility to protect the district’s children at all times, including when they’re on school-sponsored events like tournaments. The district’s guidelines prohibit alcohol “while on school property or while on duty,” such as supervising a trip, and consequences include “immediate removal of duty.”
What if a coach or chaperone had consumed alcohol, Browning asked, then had been involved in a crash on the way back to the hotel?
“I do not want any of my students … in a vehicle with someone that has had one beer, two beers, a glass of wine or anything,” Browning said. “There’s no flexibility on that with me. …
“I’m sitting here shaking my head and thinking, why don’t we just allow teachers to have beers in the teachers’ lounge then? Where do you draw the line?”
Most parents interviewed understand the district’s guidelines against alcohol use but question the severity of the punishment.
Although district officials say he resigned before he was formally punished, Swymer was told he could have faced a yearlong suspension — just as a previous coach did for a similar offense.
Piazza said he favors probation or a smaller suspension but that a year is too extreme. “I’m not saying let him off the hook,” he said. “I’m saying let the punishment fit the crime.”
Swymer’s supporters also questioned whether he received a fair, due process hearing after the district received an anonymous email alleging he cursed at players, used chewing tobacco while coaching and drank during the outing.
Wood complained that no witnesses were interviewed and that administrators didn’t review all of the facts.
“(It) was basically handing down the sentence without the trial,” Piazza said.
School officials disagreed.
Elizabeth Kuhn, the district’s director of employee relations, wrote in a letter to Swymer that because he admitted to drinking in front of students while on duty, “the District considered this investigation to be closed and took the appropriate action.”
Browning also denied the lack of due process because two school officials talked with Swymer and the coach confirmed the allegations.
“What other due process needed to be done,” Browning said, “when he admitted when asked about it?”
Staff writer Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report. Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.
Editor's note: Edits made at 8:32 to correct a misattributed quote.