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
We’ll break down the local and state education developments you need to know every Thursday.
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.
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…