Center Academy principal's anti-gay Facebook comments rile Pinellas Park students, parents

Cyd Zeigler kisses his partner of 13 years, Dan Pinar, in a post made to Facebook after the Orlando shooting. (Courtesy of Cyd Zeigler)
Cyd Zeigler kisses his partner of 13 years, Dan Pinar, in a post made to Facebook after the Orlando shooting. (Courtesy of Cyd Zeigler)
Published July 21 2016
Updated July 21 2016

PINELLAS PARK — Principal Steve Kenney stands outside Center Academy every morning and waves as parents drop their children off at the private school. During assemblies, students say he reminds them to think before they post to social media because it could "come back at you."

Students say he preaches "it's cool to be kind."

So why, then, asked 13-year-old Rex Baxter, did his principal post a comment on Facebook calling two men kissing "sick" hours after the June 12 massacre in Orlando?

A sports website editor, Cyd Zeigler, is asking the same thing. It was Zeigler's photo with Dan Pinar, his husband and partner of 13 years, that prompted Kenney to post a series of comments and bible verses, including one that says a man who "practices homosexuality" must "be put to death."

Zeigler on Wednesday published a column for SB Nation's detailing what happened.

"What he said was so heinous," Zeigler told the Tampa Bay Times. "And to do it 36 hours after 49 people were killed in a gay bar on a stranger's page was beyond explanation."

The couple's photo was taken in front of the John Lennon Peace Wall in Prague, just days before a gunman targeted the gay nightclub in Orlando on Latin night.

Zeigler had hoped to write a story about what the school learned. He said he spent a month trying to contact Kenney, but the principal didn't return his calls.

He did speak to Andrew Hicks, the CEO of the Center Academy. It's a non-religious school system that has four locations in Tampa Bay and several others in Florida and one in Georgia. It helps to prepare children with learning disabilities for college.

Zeigler said Hicks told him that the principal would not make comments like that on Facebook again. But the CEO would not say if the principal would face any discipline.

Then on Thursday the CEO released a statement saying Kenney would be suspended for two weeks without pay and will attend mandatory diversity training and professional counseling. Employees at all of Center Academy's schools will also undergo diversity training starting in August.

"We do not condone nor agree with the views or values reflected in the recent personal Facebook statements," Hicks' statement said.

"On behalf of Center Academy, we extend our sincere apologies to anyone who was hurt or offended by them."

Kenney did not return calls for comment from the Times.

Zeigler said he doesn't want the principal to lose his job, but he's worried about the children walking through Center Academy halls who may be struggling with their sexuality.

"I really just want to make sure those kids didn't fall victim to that," Zeigler said.

Zeigler's story has been shared by thousands online.

Rex's mom, Michelle Baxter, 44 of Pinellas Park, said she was "disheartened" and "appalled" by the principal's Facebook comments.

The Pinellas Park school has been "God-sent" for her son, who has attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, or ADHD. He's enjoyed small class sizes and specialized teachers.

He's thriving there, she said, but now the school seems tarnished.

"It almost makes me not want to put him back there," she said. "I don't know what we're going to do."

Christian Valentin, 17, will soon start his senior year at Dixie Hollins High School. But the gay student said he spent his middle school years at Center Academy in Pinellas Park.

"I didn't know that he was very strongly opinionated like that," Valentin said. "He's not fit to be a principal of a school. You can't just say stuff like that."

Zeigler was also bothered that the comments weren't removed his Facebook post until sometime after June 17, days after the mass shooting. He said it took two calls to the CEO to get Kenney to take them down.

Hicks, Zeigler recalled, told him Kenney was sorry for the comments.

"Why didn't he remove them if he's so remorseful?" Zeigler said. "I want to talk to him ... I want to hear his remorse."

Zeigler said he's been getting responses from gay parents at the school thankful for his piece.

"I don't want to judge the whole school by what one person said," Rex said. "I still want to go back. I'm not really happy about what (Kenney) said, but I still have respect for him as my principal."

What should his fellow students who have been offended and upset by their principal's comments do? Rex, who will soon start eighth grade, said they should practice what Kenney himself once preached: show kindness.

"You don't have to like someone to respect them."

Times staff writer Langston Taylor contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] or (727) 893-8862. Follow @sara_dinatale.