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Fox Chapel incident dominates school board meeting

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An overflow crowd attended the April 25th school board meeting, necessitating the opening of a remote viewing room. The meeting was an emotional rollercoaster, with moments of civic pride as attendees learned of generous community donations, contrasted with calls for the resignation of Superintendent John Stratton over a March incident at Fox Chapel Middle School. In that incident, a transgender teacher experiencing a mental crisis during school hours made statements that were perceived by some as threats against students. The teacher was removed and returned to the classroom in a matter of days, all without specific notification to parents.

The meeting opened with ten Winding Waters K-8 students leading the board in the Pledge of Allegiance. Superintendent John Stratton recognized the students by stating, “You are the most positive thing of our Tuesday nights, and we appreciate that.”

Hernando County Commissioner Brian Hawkins (District 2) addressed the Board in the first order of business. Hawkins said the Fox Chapel Middle School events had become the topic of conversation during the Hernando Board of County Commissioners meeting earlier in the day. Referring to remarks by County Commissioner Elizabeth Narverud calling for Stratton to resign, Hawkins said he did not feel it was appropriate for a sitting member of another board to ask for the resignation of a School Board Superintendent or another board member. (In her remarks, Narverud cited a “failure in leadership” and called for the resignation of Stratton. Several of the other County Commissioners appeared to agree with her.)
Commissioner Hawkins said he has yet to hear from anyone in the School District precisely who is responsible for handling the Fox Chapel incident, and he believes the community deserves answers and clarity. Hawkins added, “It’s disturbing, it’s very disturbing.”

Before the Citizen’s Comments portion of the meeting, Superintendent John Stratton read a public statement concerning the ongoing Fox Chapel Middle School controversy. Stratton stated, “If I were in your shoes, I’d be upset too. As a father, I, too, worry about my children’s safety on a daily basis, both in school and out.” Citing social media rumors, Stratton said he wanted to provide factual information and referenced a timeline of events he released in a previous statement. Stratton said, “I’ll be the first to admit our assessment of the situation changed. We followed procedures. Did we get it right every step of the way? I don’t think so, which is why it is important for us to finish the investigation and to learn from it.” Stratton went on for several minutes rehashing the timeline of events in the days following the incident but did not get into the specifics of the incident itself. Stratton added, “Staff at the time were unable to verify what was said, and their statements were unclear and contradicted what was reported to the deputy on site.” Stratton said, “It is imperative that we have a complete, accurate understanding of what happened that afternoon. If corrective action of staff is necessary, it will be in accordance with district policy and will be based on facts established through our investigation.” Stratton emphasized that the district did take the incident seriously. Stratton said he understood the parents’ concerns that they were not notified of the incident. Stratton noted that the district was reviewing its guidelines on communication and notification.

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Following Stratton’s statement, 27 people addressed the board on several topics, many speaking on the Fox Chapel incident. At least half were teachers in the district. Lisa Masserio, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association (the local teachers’ union), appeared before the board wearing a large button that read “Who’s Next?” As Masserio read from a prepared statement, she said the teachers present were wearing the button because “the villainizing and terrorizing of teachers is wrong.” As she continued, it became apparent that Masserio was referencing the Fox Chapel Middle School incident. Masserio said this has happened on social media, in school board meetings, and in teachers’ district e-mails.

According to Masserio, one such email went out earlier in the day from a school board member who does not believe in teachers’ rights to due process. She said they agree that safety in schools is paramount, but privacy rights in mental health situations and employment actions are also important. Masserio said that reporting from an online media outlet was inaccurate, and the disinformation was being weaponized against teachers. Masserio added that “more and more lies have been made up to inflame the situation by a very small but hostile group of extremists within our community.” She said the group is trying to impose their views on “the rest of us and influence how our students and our children are educated.” Masserio did not state who the group was but may have been talking about a parental rights organization known as Moms for Liberty Hernando County.
This group publicized the police report and brought national attention to the Fox Chapel incident. Moms for Liberty Hernando County members have been vocal in recent school board meetings, advocating for removing certain library books, etc., and have most recently circulated an online petition calling for the removal of Superintendent John Stratton and three other school board members over the Fox Chapel incident.

Masserio concluded her remarks by saying, “Educators have the right to be treated as professionals and should expect no less, whether that is from a small hostile group of community members or from a school board member who has decided to carry their water for them.” Masserio did not name the school board member nor the specifics of the email she referenced at the beginning of her address.

Many speakers following Masserio were teachers or retired teachers wearing the same button. The teachers expressed many of the same concerns outlined by Masserio and generally spoke in support of the district’s handling of the incident as it related to employees’ rights. Several teachers and former teachers alluded to Board member Shannon Rodriguez in their comments, some singling her out by name. One speaker referenced her “histrionics” on the board, and another accused her of disrespecting fellow board members, staff, and Superintendent Stratton. The latter spent her entire three minutes addressing Rodriguez directly.

Not all present were in support of the district’s actions. One parent spoke of the district protecting the Fox Chapel teacher involved because she was transgender and accused the board of “identity politics,” calling for the resignation of Superintendent Stratton. Others told the board the incident was “handled horribly,” stating that parents should have been notified of the facts when the incident occurred.

Monty Floyd, the vice chairman of the Hernando County chapter of Moms for Liberty, addressed the board. Floyd pointed out that the story is based on facts gathered from police reports, and local, national, and international media covered it. Floyd said the district “knowingly and willfully worked to cover up a serious safety threat at Fox Chapel.” He said, “When viewed through the lens of recent national news about school shootings, this case was taken from ineptitude to reckless child endangerment.” Floyd mentioned a post by the teacher on Reddit, an online site, where he discusses transgenderism and his students. The post has recently been removed from the site, but it has been archived. Floyd said the schools are there to educate, not to indoctrinate and cover-up. Floyd concluded his remarks by calling for the resignations of board members “who took part in this.”
One speaker stated that the politics involved in the Fox Chapel incident have gotten out of hand and referred to them as “A Game of Thrones.”
Board members respond to citizens’ comments.

Mark Johnson stated that the students come first, and anyone who thinks that they are more important than the students can put their papers in and leave. He said due to divisiveness, the school board has agreed to master board training to attempt to come together and work as a unified voice for the students. “We are taking action to correct and get us working more cohesively.”

Shannon Rodriguez spoke next, saying, “Earlier today (during the school board informal meeting), I said the safety of our children is paramount. I’m not worrying about the contract with the union. I’m not worrying about who’s going to teach the children algebra. The children are what’s most important, not a contract. You guys can misconstrue it however you want to see it, I cannot stand here and change your mind, but I will tell you- I am for the teachers.” She said that through her local business, they had given a tremendous amount to teachers, from free oil changes to teacher recognitions. “The reason we do it is because we value and honor teachers. I value and honor every one of you that stood up here and cut me down. How is that effective? Today, I wasn’t being rude; I was explaining that the safety of our children is of the utmost importance.”

Turning to the teachers and principals, Rodriguez said, “Hats off to you. You have a hard, hard job. I’m not here to make it any harder. I’m here to support you. I’m here to honor you…”

Rodriguez stated, “ I’m here because God put me here.” The statement was met with hisses and boos by several members of the audience. Chairman Gus Guadagnino cautioned the audience by saying, “easy…..”

Rodriguez continued, “This is the problem. But that’s okay. You can mock, and you can laugh, but I care about every one of you. That’s because I am a Christian… I’m here to stay. I’m here to make changes and to be effective. I’d love to do it with all of us getting along.”

Rodriguez said she spent the day following the April 11th school board meeting contacting attorneys, the sheriff’s department, and speaking to Superintendent Stratton several times. Rodriguez said she urged Stratton to remove the teacher from the school. According to Rodriguez, she offered multiple solutions but was met with resistance on policy and procedures, and that her hands were tied. Rodriguez said she contacted the Department of Education and sent them information about the situation while briefing Mr. Stratton on her actions. She added that the DOE Bureau Chief came from Tallahassee to start an investigation at Fox Chapel, and he spent four or five days there interviewing students, faculty, and staff last week.
Rodriguez commented, “If we have a Superintendent that is willing to put a teacher in class over student safety, they do need to be removed.” Then addressing the Fox Chapel teacher directly, she said, “The consequences of the choices you have made boils over to now the fear that the children have.”

Following Rodriguez’s comments, Board member Prescott stated that the health, welfare, and safety of the students is the number one priority of the board. She remarked that is why it is so important that the investigations by DOE, HCSO, and the school district be made public.

Superintendent Stratton had quite a bit to say to board member Rodriguez in response to her statements. Stratton said that Rodriguez was not met with resistance in their conversations on April 12th. He stated that it was actually through him that the teacher voluntarily agreed to arrive at District Offices to be out of student contact the next day. He said this was before they even knew about the RPO (Risk Protection Order) or its contents. Stratton also said Rodriguez never told him that she was calling the DOE (Florida Department of Education) and “everybody else,” although he knew she was doing it.

Rodriguez interjected, saying that Stratton was the one who gave her the DOE contact information. Stratton commented to Rodriguez that she can’t tell him he can’t follow policy and procedures on any one particular case. He has to follow the policies. He then said to Rodriguez, “You twist my words all the time.”

In an earlier statement, Rodriguez said Stratton had declined to remove the teacher from the classroom “because they didn’t have enough Algebra teachers.” Referring to that Statement, Stratton said the fact the teacher is an Algebra I teacher, and they were discussing how there aren’t many in eighth grade, was independent of whether the teacher would stay or be removed from the classroom.

Julie B. Maglio contributed to this report.

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