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New questions arise about the handling of Fox Chapel Middle School incident as FDOE gets involved

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Concerns have only grown in the last week about the Hernando County School District’s handling of a March 24th incident at Fox Chapel Middle School. The incident involved an alleged threat against students by teacher Ashlee Renczkowski. Last week, an emotionally charged dialogue quickly spread among parents as a mixture of rumors and facts propagated online as well as verbally between students and parents.  

The incident has now garnered national attention. According to a Hernando County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) incident report, on March 24th, the gender-transitioning teacher made concerning comments to an assistant principal while teaching a class. She then repeated the comments to a school guidance counselor. The teacher, who is currently undergoing hormone therapy, was reportedly upset about social media posts that were critical of the teacher’s gender change. The school’s assistant principal, along with guidance counselor Kimberly Walby, reported to the School Resource Officer (SRO) that Renczkowski made comments that she “was having bad thoughts” and “that she wanted to shoot some students due to them not performing to their ability.” According to the report, the teacher immediately told Walby that she would never harm a student. Following an interview by the SRO, the teacher was interviewed by a district mental health counselor and sent home. Neither the SRO nor the mental health counselor believed Renczkowski presented an imminent threat to herself or others. Therefore she was not taken into custody under the Baker Act, according to the report. That evening, the HCSO obtained a temporary court order and removed handguns and ammunition from the teacher’s residence. The teacher was allowed to return to the classroom a few days later by the district. No notification to parents was made by the district at the time. 

Upset parents took their concerns to the School Board’s April 11th meeting, having received the first official communication from the district only the day before the meeting in the form of a robocall. The call came more than two weeks after the incident occurred. Parents demanded to know why they had not been notified sooner by the district.

School Board Superintendent John Stratton responded to parents by telling them an incident did occur, and both the District and the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office investigated and found there was no danger to students. Stratton refused to divulge the specifics of the alleged threat, saying only that he trusted the investigation of his team and that of the Sheriff’s Office. Stratton said he had allowed the teacher to return to the classroom after only a few days off while the investigation took place, and the teacher had been back in the classroom since then. Stratton has provided no details as to the specifics of how the district’s investigation was conducted or whether the investigation involved a professional mental health evaluation.

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Less than 48 hours later, on Thursday, April 13th, Stratton released a letter to parents, students, and teachers at Fox Chapel, stating that he had been made aware of “new information” provided by the Sheriff’s Office, and had now removed the involved teacher from the classroom.  There was just one problem. All of the information gathered by the Sheriff’s Office was documented on their Incident Report, which was completed and approved by March 25th. That information in the report had been available to Stratton for quite some time. When asked about Stratton’s claim of “new information,” Sheriff Al Nienhuis said that his office had developed no new information since the date of the incident, March 24th

Late in the day on Monday, April 17th, the school district released a public statement providing a “timeline” of events. The document claimed that information contained in a press release issued by the Sheriff’s Office on April 12 had provided “information not previously known to the school district.” The statement said the “new information” was regarding the risk protection order (RPO) mentioned in the Sheriff’s press release. However, this same information had already been made available to the district in the initial incident report. (An RPO is a document that petitions the court to order an individual who may be a risk to themselves or others to relinquish all of their firearms for a set period of time.)  It is unclear from the statement what was specifically “new information” to the district, as the original HCSO report stated that firearms were confiscated on the day of the incident.  Hernando Sun has requested clarification from the school district.

Some believe a more likely reason for Stratton reversing himself regarding the teacher’s status was contained in a statement from The Florida Department of Education (FDOE). The FDOE released the statement on its Twitter account on Friday, April 14th, which read:

 “Earlier this week, the Department was informed of a situation regarding student safety at a school in Hernando County. Upon the Department bringing the concern to the Superintendent Wednesday evening, only then did the district remove the teacher from the school, effective yesterday, Thursday, April 13th. Therefore, the teacher is no longer at the school.”

As of the evening of Monday, April 17th, over 500 people have signed an online petition seeking the “…removal of Superintendent Stratton, School Board Chair Gus Guadagnino, School Board Vice Chair Susan Duval, and District 2 (Fox Chapel) School Board member, Linda Prescott, from their positions, effective immediately.

The petition goes on to read, “The clear malicious intent of Superintendent Stratton, his staff, and Board Members Guadagnino, Duval, and Prescott in concealing the seriousness of this incident, including its mere existence, not only from the parents, public, and media, but even other Board members should be grounds enough to remove them from the District immediately. We the undersigned are hereby demanding that this matter be taken seriously and that in addition to the removal of the aforementioned Hernando County School District staff and elected officials, an FDLE investigation be conducted to determine the scope of the “cover-up” regarding what occurred at Fox Chapel Middle School. Hernando County parents have lost all confidence in the School District to take the safety of their children seriously and given the “cover-up” which is technically still ongoing, examples need to be made to prevent this from happening again.

It was not immediately clear why the petition targeted some board members and not others, but it does target the board members who have been strong supporters of Superintendent Stratton.

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