TAMPA — On Facebook he was “All Pro Dads Team Captain Tony,” a smiling ambassador promoting parent involvement at Adams Middle School.
The new principal, Nishira Mitchell, posed for photos with him in the school media center. He was eager to be part of the transformation of Adams, a D-rated school with 829 students, including his two daughters.
Then the bad news came on Oct. 3. Tony Lorenzo Hart, 45, could not pass a school district screening to be a volunteer. Taking again to social media, he posted that he felt “like my soul got snatched away.”
Mitchell tried to cheer him up. “We will find ways,” she posted. “We will continue to partner.”
Despite her assurances, the school district says Hart can no longer volunteer, but can function as a parent only.
But questions remain about how he was allowed to become so heavily involved before his background was checked. The case also brings to light how difficult it can be for schools to balance the need for parent volunteers against student safety.
Sometimes, the most enthusiastic volunteers can have problematic backgrounds.
As a 14-year-old growing up in East Tampa, Hart said he hung around with older men and got caught up in their criminal activity. He was arrested on multiple charges in 1989, and sentenced to prison for attempted robbery with a firearm.
“All the adults that I was with, they told a story, that it was me,” he said.
He spent seven years at the Brevard Correctional Institution. Not long after his release, a marijuana possession arrest sent him back to prison. He got out in 2001 at age 27. There were a handful of arrests in the decade that followed, some involving drugs or guns. But none resulted in more prison time. Most of the cases were dismissed.
None of the charges had anything to do with children, and none were sex crimes.
Hart found jobs in construction. He started a family. He got custody of his two daughters in 2007, a defining moment. “Any man would want to make a transition in their life to raise their kids in this world,” he said.
Hart said he helped out in every school the girls attended, despite his background.
At Cleveland Elementary, he got involved in All Pro Dad, part of the Family First organization backed by former Tampa Bay Bucs coach Tony Dungy. The organization advises schools on how to get fathers involved in their children’s education.
With principal Mitchell newly installed at Adams, some in the organization wanted to start a chapter there. Hart said two of its leaders, Terry Sisco and Paul Kelley, asked him to run it.
Hart said he told Mitchell about his record. But district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said Mitchell told her “she did not know about his background."
Arja said that from the district’s perspective, he was not a volunteer because "he was not cleared to be a volunteer. But he is a parent at the school. As a parent, he should have only been allowed to engage with his children, and the teachers who work with his children.”
Hart nevertheless recruited parents to attend the opening breakfast on Sept. 20. A tweet from the school on Sept. 28 said the group was led by Hart and showed him posing with Mitchell, Sisco and an assistant principal.
The Tampa Bay Times tried to interview Sisco and Kelley. Instead, All Pro Dad referred a reporter to president Mark Merrill, who said he never heard of Hart and knew nothing about the situation at Adams.
The district says Hart initiated the background screening on Sept. 16, self-disclosing his record. To protect children from harm, school districts set high standards for volunteers who come to the school on a regular basis. “We use the hiring guidelines that we use for teachers,” Arja said.
But by the time the email arrived saying he was disqualified, Hart said he was already deeply involved at the school.
In addition to the All Pro Dad meetings, he said he helped supervise student lunch. He broke up fights. He walked students back to class after lunch so they wouldn’t skip. He said he was a mentor to some who could barely write their names, or were being ignored by teachers, or were homeless.
He showed a reporter a text from a teacher who had asked him to come to her classroom and help with a student who was giving her trouble.
Mitchell did not speak with the Times. But, in a Facebook message to Hart on Sept. 22, she remarked, " I don’t know what Adams would do without you." In that same post, she wrote, “We need to recruit more parents that can volunteer for hall duty.”
Chief of Schools Harrison Peters spoke on Mitchell’s behalf, acknowledging that it has been a tough year at Adams. The school had to transfer six teachers out of the school after classes had begun because of their state evaluation scores, and try to replace them. “That time of year, it’s slim pickings,” Peters said.
The administrative and office staffs were almost entirely new, which, according to the district, explains why it appeared for awhile that the school was going to disregard the Oct. 3 email. Staff at Adams believed Hart had mistakenly filled out a different volunteer form, to be a chaperone, Arja said.
“They misunderstood the process and misread the screens,” she said. “The school is getting additional support with the process.”
As for the work Hart did at other schools, Arja acknowledged that security is tighter than it used to be.
The Times asked Merrill, of All Pro Dad, how things could have gotten as far as they did in their organization without a background check. Merrill said it’s the school’s job to do all vetting.
“What we want to make sure is that we stay in our lane," he said. "Our job is to answer any questions and to have those resources in hand.”
The program gets results, he said. “It is bringing men on campus like never before. And these men are not only going now to this once-a-month gathering of dads and kids, but now in many schools we hear they’re involved in parent conferences and coming to PTA meetings.”
MaryLou Whaley, the district’s director of community engagement, also spoke highly of All Pro Dad. She acknowledged situations like the one at Adams are delicate, as they touch communities where students need the most help.
“We need all parents to be involved the way that they can," she said. "We are trying to meet parents where they are. We have to find that balance.”
Looking ahead, Peters said he is optimistic about Adams, and not without empathy for parents who are stopped from being as involved as they want to be.
“I have a brother in prison and when he gets out, I want him to be able to help his kids,” he said. But schools have to follow the security rules without exception.
“I hold my principals to high expectations,” Peters said. “This is a tough situation, personally."