NEW PORT RICHEY — All Diana Byrnes wanted was for her daughter, Caroline, to attend the River Ridge High School prom.
She never expected it would end with police officers escorting them Friday evening from the Lowry Park Zoo prom site — or with the suspension of the teacher who tried to help the straight-A student who missed the ticket purchase deadline by a day.
"I did nothing wrong, and my daughter especially did nothing wrong," Byrnes said Monday. "She just stood there in tears in her prom dress."
Pasco County School District officials defended the actions taken by River Ridge administrators, saying they were maintaining an orderly prom and dealing with an insubordinate employee who "jeopardized the safety of students." Aside from allowing Caroline to come to the event, they said, the teacher brought two men to help with the prom without school approval.
The story started out simply enough. Caroline, a junior, saw the prom as a keynote event in the school year. Her mom agreed to pay for the trimmings — dress, limo ride, photos, even grandma's visit to help with hair and makeup. But Caroline had to pay for the $75 ticket.
She had a three-week window to earn the cash and make the purchase. She didn't have all the money in hand until May 10, the final Friday for ticket sales.
When Caroline tried to buy a prom ticket that day, though, she said she couldn't find anyone. She left campus planning to pick one up the next Monday, if any were available.
That did not turn out to be an option, even though the school had sold only 390 tickets to an event designed to handle 450. The school's contract with the zoo required a final head count five business days in advance of the event for meal planning. The prom menu included hors d'oeuvres, desserts and drinks.
Principal Maria Swanson also had her fill of students failing to meet deadlines for other events, most notably signing up for graduation caps and gowns. So she held firm to that May 10 sales date, as a life lesson of sorts.
"The reason this girl didn't get one (ticket) is because she came in after the principal said, 'Do not sell any more tickets,' " Pasco School District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.
Byrnes didn't take the news well. She fired off several emails and calls to Swanson and Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning.
"This is a special event for not just Caroline, but for our whole family — and it deeply saddens me that her school — HER SCHOOL, will not allow her to purchase a ticket to the prom. (Especially when she is such an excellent student.)" Byrnes wrote in one of those emails.
Both responded with a version of "the rules are the rules."
"We did not have any reports of any student unable to purchase on Friday," Swanson wrote to Byrnes. "Deadlines such as these are strictly followed due to the stress outside events cause to the educational environment, which is why we do not continue any sales past the date determined as the final date."
Tammy Casanova, the teacher who headed up the prom, said she wasn't completely available on the final day of ticket sales, so she felt some responsibility for Caroline's inability to buy a prom ticket. Casanova made arrangements for Caroline to volunteer in the coat check, just so she could be there.
School officials, wary of Byrnes' weeklong press to overcome their denials, prepared for her to make a scene. They didn't know that Casanova had offered Caroline a volunteer job there, Cobbe said.
When the girl arrived, a school resource officer told her and her mom she wasn't welcome as a guest without a ticket. Caroline's photo was visible in several places, Byrnes said, so everyone knew to deny her entry.
Byrnes said she never raised her voice, but asked pointed questions before walking away. Cobbe said Byrnes angrily shouted and swore at school officials. Either way, a Tampa police officer told Byrnes to go and followed her car to the Interstate 275 ramp to make sure she left.
The next day, the school administration turned to Casanova, a 48-year-old teacher who is just a couple of weeks shy of retiring. An assistant principal showed up at her home and placed her on suspension, taking her school keys, computer and parking pass.
Cobbe explained that, in addition to offering Caroline access to the prom against direct instructions from the principal, Casanova also invited two 20-year-olds to help with the event. Those men danced with underage girls, and one of the men appeared to be intoxicated, Cobbe said.
"She jeopardized student safety. She used bad judgment. She doesn't need to be around students," Cobbe said. "She was going to retire as of June 6 anyway, so the school thought it was better for everyone if she just stayed home."
Casanova, who earlier this year was suspended for three days after allowing a different student to leave campus, said she felt bullied by the principal.
"She has this personal vendetta," Casanova said. "Unfortunately, she takes it out on the students just to get back at me."
Cobbe denied that characterization of events, saying the teacher and parent made the situation worse than it had to be.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.