LAND O'LAKES — A white Pasco County teacher accused of making racially charged statements to black students has been suspended without pay for three days and transferred to a different school across the county.
Many in the community called for Wesley Chapel High School special education teacher John Sousa to be fired for telling students he would call newly elected president Donald Trump to have them deported for their behavior.
Some students said he directed his comments at African-American teens, and said they would be sent "back to Africa." The incident, a day after the Nov. 8 election, tied in to similar acts of intolerance in schools around the country in the aftermath of a nasty presidential campaign.
Superintendent Kurt Browning told the School Board on Tuesday that he found the scenario "incredibly inappropriate," but not a firing offense.
"You've heard me say I'm a supporter of second chances," Browning said. That behavior is not condoned by this district. But there is a place for him."
Sousa, who has been on administrative leave since the incident, will transfer to Mitchell High School in Trinity as a teacher of students with autism. His past performance evaluations were positive.
Also factoring into the equation were discrepancies in the details of what happened in the school hallway.
District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said Sousa acknowledged making the deportation comment to students but denied saying they would be sent to Africa. Meanwhile, "the students were not unanimous" in describing the teacher's action, Cobbe added.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Sousa stressed that he did not say exactly what he was accused of saying.
"I said, 'You kids get where you're supposed to be, or the new president could get you in trouble,'" Sousa recalled, adding that he never pointed out any particular teens and wouldn't be able to identify them now.
"Maybe I should have been minding my own business," the 30-year educator said. "But there were kids where they weren't supposed to be."
He noted that the district investigation turned up inconsistencies among students' accounts, but suggested that pressure came to bear in disciplining him. Sousa lamented the political atmosphere that led to the accusations.
"I didn't vote for Donald Trump. ... I am not a racist," he said. "This is what's wrong with America. People make accusations about people without really knowing them."
He welcomed the opportunity to move on to Mitchell High.
"I love doing the job that I do," Sousa said. "It's all in God's hands."
In public, most of the details about what occurred came through social media. Parent Donnie Jones Jr., a local photographer, posted information from his daughter on Facebook, and the story went viral.
Jones said at the time he spoke to Sousa, who apologized and said he did not intend to be racist. Jones said he found the apology disingenuous. He could not be immediately reached for comment.
School Board members, who unanimously approved the discipline without any conversation, said the suspension and transfer should suffice.
"It's inappropriate language," said board member Steve Luikart, a retired assistant principal. "Do you slap their hands, or cut their knees off?"
"He's being punished enough," added board member Alison Crumbley. "He's on our radar screen."
Browning said Sousa would be subject to progressive discipline, meaning a repeat would not be treated the same way.