LAND O’LAKES — Shawn Hayston wants an apology.
The father of two elementary-aged sons visited Pasco County’s Pine View Middle School last August with a group of parents raising concerns about one of the school’s murals, which had been featured in social media posts. The mural, which has been painted over, depicted a girl in a gas mask.
The tour with principal Jennifer Warren didn’t go so well, by all accounts, with tensions running high as Hayston and others asked pointed questions that Warren didn’t seem comfortable answering.
Hayston and other parents who attended said they left with more questions than when they arrived, and a general feeling that they had been treated disrespectfully. Hayston walked away pondering whether he would send his fifth grade son to Pine View, his assigned school, in fall 2023.
“I figured that would be the end of it,” he said. “Then she made the phone call.”
The day after his Aug. 22 visit, Hayston got a message from his supervisor at the Hillsborough County Fire-Rescue Department, where he’s been a firefighter for nearly 20 years. Warren, who declined to comment through the district communications office, had called claiming that Hayston had entered the school under false pretenses, was hostile during the tour and had been cited for trespassing.
The trespassing claim was not true. Regarding the other matters, those who were present have differing accounts of what happened.
Either way, the department launched an investigation, with personnel chief Derrik Ryan telling Warren he would get Hayston’s side of the story and reprimand him if necessary. No action came after the review.
Nearly six months later, Hayston has yet to get the apology he and his lawyer asked for. And his experience has become a cause for parents who see it as emblematic of the way that public school officials dismiss their concerns, a perspective that has fueled a mostly conservative nationwide push for more parent control.
“This is something that, now that that’s happened, every other parent is afraid to speak out,” said Jennifer Houston, who organized the school visit.
That is not what Pasco County School Board members said they want. Rather, the board has signaled a desire to hear all views and to be more responsive to parents — a position that some have questioned in light of the board’s new civility policy that targets “disruptive” school visitors.
“I didn’t think it was appropriate,” board chairperson Megan Harding said of the principal’s call to Hayston’s boss. “I have definitely had many discussions with the superintendent about it.”
But the board does not control daily operations or personnel decisions, Harding and other board members noted, placing the matter in Superintendent Kurt Browning’s lap.
Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools
Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
And Browning considers the case closed. In a November letter to Hayston, the superintendent said that Warren had been counseled by her supervisor that the call was inappropriate, but not a violation of district policy, education department ethics rules or state law.
He wrote that employee relations director Kathy Scalise spoke to Fire-Rescue personnel chief Ryan and found that Warren did not ask for Hayston to be fired, and that she was “very professional” for the entire call. In her summary report, Scalise wrote that Warren decided to make the call because Hayston repeatedly spoke about being a firefighter as he became argumentative about “safe space” stickers, which were not a subject of the tour.
The stickers typically have rainbow-colored designs and indicate support for LGBTQ students, but also have been perceived by some to indicate that something a child says or does at school could be kept from parents. Hayston said the term means something different in his profession, and he sought clarification. The district ordered the stickers removed from all schools in the fall.
The principal also noted that Hayston did not have a child currently attending the school. The tour was supposed to be for parents whose children attend Pine View, according to the report.
The report said Warren told Assistant Superintendent Marcy Hetzler-Nettles that she contacted Hayston’s supervisor because “she perceived him to be acting in an unethical manner and that he compromised the safety and security of the school by attending the tour under false pretenses.”
Scalise’s report further states that complaints about the situation continued into October, prompting Hetzler-Nettles to hold several meetings with Warren. At one point, Scalise wrote, Warren insisted that she would act as needed to protect the school’s safety and security.
Hetzler-Nettles told Warren to “stand down,” Scalise wrote, reminding her that she had received a verbal reprimand and “similar behavior would not be tolerated in the future.” Warren apologized, according to Scalise, and said it would not happen again.
The department continued its review through November, after which Browning sent his letter to Hayston.
“Jennifer Warren has had a successful career as both a teacher and an administrator and in this particular situation, she made a judgment error, and has received an appropriate response from her supervisors,” he wrote. “There will be no further action taken on the matter.”
In an interview, Hayston, who has launched a bid for school board, said he was baffled by the district’s response. He noted that while he was investigated by his department within days of Warren’s complaint, the district did not move swiftly to deal with Warren and her false accusations against him.
Nor did anyone from the district reach out to hear his side of the story, he added, suggesting that some form of communication might have eased the situation.
He said he would have explained that he entered the school only after providing his identification, his child’s name and other information, never misleading anyone to get inside. He added that while he had questions about safe-space stickers, the mural and other items, he attempted to be respectful and did not get belligerent.
Explaining his concerns about the mural, he said he found it overly negative and gloomy for a school.
Houston, the parent who organized the tour, agreed with his version of events.
“He was vocal with his questions, but nothing to get him trespassed or fired from his job,” Houston said. “He was not yelling. I didn’t feel like he was even annoyed. Just asking questions.”
Warren, by contrast, was “very defensive” and didn’t seem to want to answer the questions, Houston added.
Stressed over the situation, Hayston said he quit his new second job as a nurse practitioner. He sought help from a lawyer who has represented another parent in her fight against the school district, and begun the transition from interested parent to politically active parent.
“I felt like I was invisible. It’s very frustrating,” Hayston said. “The parents deserve a voice. They deserve to be looked in the eye and know their grievance was heard, even if they don’t get what they want.”
• • •
Sign up for the Gradebook newsletter!
Every Thursday, get the latest updates on what’s happening in Tampa Bay area schools from Times education reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek. Click here to sign up.