Thursday, November 23, 2017
Education

In Pasco, River Ridge High School parents riled over student's threat, district's silence due to privacy issues

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NEW PORT RICHEY— Dozens of angry River Ridge High School parents have called the Pasco County School District this week, complaining that a student who threatened to kill his classmates has been allowed to return to classes.

District officials said they've investigated with law enforcement and determined the school is safe. They want to explain more, but their hands are tied because of laws protecting the student's confidentiality.

They won't even say which laws they're referring to, for fear that such basic information might inadvertently lead to identifying the student publicly, violating the student's rights.

"It's the most frustrating thing I have encountered so far on this job," said School Board member Alison Crumbley, who has spent hours tracking down information after being contacted by many families.

Crumbley occupies a unique position in the scenario. She serves on the board, which gives her access to specifics, and she also has a daughter in the school, which connects her to the emotions coursing through the campus.

"I know things that I think would calm people tremendously. But I can't say it," she said. "My daughter goes to school there, and she's there. . . . I feel like she's very safe."

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino deflected several questions about the situation at Tuesday's School Board meeting, where the issue bubbled to the surface as two parents and a student raised concerns during public comment. She offered to tell board members more "later on."

After the meeting, though, Fiorentino said that she had already contacted Congress members Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, and Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, to discuss how federal law has put the district in a bind. Ross sits on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, while Castor has close ties to President Barack Obama.

A spokesman for Ross said the congressman is aware of the scenario and is looking into what actions might be taken. The staff is waiting for more information from the school district.

The district is not making any details available publicly, though, even to parents who have called in complaining about the specifics.

"There's major privacy issues at play here," said spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli.

Lawyers have approved a script in which district staff who answer the calls can respond to say they appreciate the call and understand the concerns, that the district has worked closely with law enforcement to ensure students and the campus are safe, and that there's "no cause for alarm." No one denies something happened.

"They're still upset," said Romagnoli, who fielded many of the calls. "This is an upsetting situation. We're doing the best we can to address it within the confines of the law."

Count parent Eva Spissak among the dissatisfied. She aired her anger at the School Board meeting.

"If an ESE student is in a mainstream class, isn't that student part of the real world? This student needs to learn when he has crossed the line," Spissak said. "If we are allowing him to continue without consequences after what he did, we are helping to create a monster." ESE is exceptional student education, which covers a broad range of students with particular educational needs.

What the student did, according to classmate Dakota Bretnall, was to repeatedly refuse to do classwork, curse out teachers, become physically agitated and ultimately threaten to kill students and teachers. The student received a 10-day suspension, but was allowed to return to River Ridge after spring break.

"I am scared to death," Bretnall told the board.

Romagnoli said the school district and law enforcement continue to monitor the student, and have not found the student to be a threat.

That hasn't made parents happy. But for now, at least, it's all district officials say they can do after receiving legal advice. Board lawyer Dennis Alfonso reiterated his warnings about going too far in dealing with the situation repeatedly during Tuesday's meeting.

"We cannot speak more about the specifics because of constraints of law over student records," he said.

Crumbley said she intends to talk to members of Congress, too, in hopes of making the rules more friendly for the many families who feel nervous and lack enough details to be reassured. With so much attention being paid to bullying in schools, she said, parents and students deserve better when they feel threatened.

"Things have happened that cause fear and anxiety among parents. I get that 100 percent," she said. "To have our hands tied is absurd."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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