BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County Schools Superintendent John Stratton and some members of the School Board are under fire from parents as more details have been released about a March 24 incident at Fox Chapel Middle School.

The parents, dissatisfied with the district’s response to a frustrated teacher and an alleged threat, have succeeded in getting the Florida Department of Education involved in the case and getting the teacher removed from the school, and have elevated the local issue into a national news story.

They are also petitioning to have Stratton and three School Board members, chairman Gus Guadagnino, vice chair Susan Duval, and District 2 member Linda Prescott, removed from their positions. As of the afternoon of April 19, 852 people had signed the online petition.

The three School Board members are supporters of Stratton, and are perceived to take more liberal positions, though at present the board is supposed to be nonpartisan.

In the past, calls for their resignation have popped up at meetings amid talk of means of dealing with COVID, the issue of removing certain books and classroom materials, and now what the petition describes as a “psychotic episode” by a teacher and “threats of violence” against students.

There has been a cover-up, the petition says, and it’s time for Gov. Ron DeSantis and the commissioner of the Florida Department of Education, Manny Diaz, to get involved and remove the above people.

What happened

On March 24, according to a timeline produced by the school district, teacher Ashlee Renczkowski told Assistant Principal Kerry Anne Thornton privately in her classroom that she was not doing well and having “bad thoughts.” Thornton radioed guidance counselor Kimberly Ann Walby and said someone was coming to see her.

In Walby’s office, Renczkowski reportedly told Walby she had learned about a post on social media where people were talking about her sexual orientation.

“It should be noted that Ashlee was born as a male but is currently in the transformation stage of becoming a woman,” a school resource officer wrote in a Hernando Sheriff’s Office report. “Ashlee is taking hormone medications and is planning on having surgery over the summer.”

Ashlee Renczkowski formerly was Alexander Renczkowski, and is married to a science teacher at Fox Chapel, according to the report.

Renczkowski expressed frustration with her fourth-period students’ performance in class, and said they didn’t seem to care about their success as much as she did, the SRO’s report noted.

“Kimberly advised that Ashlee made a comment that she wanted to shoot some students due to them not performing to their ability. Kimberly advised that Ashlee immediately stated that she would never harm a student,” the report stated.

Both Walby and Thornton gave sworn written statements about their interactions with Renczkowski.

When discussing the issues with the SRO, Renczkowski denied making a comment that she wanted to shoot some of her students and reiterated that "she would never do anything to harm any student."

“My investigation revealed that Ashlee made the statements out of frustration and she does not intend to hurt herself or anyone else,” the SRO’s report concluded. “Ashlee did not meet Baker Act criteria.” 

Florida's Baker Act allows a person to be committed to a mental health treatment center for up to 72 hours if they display certain violent or suicidal signs of mental illness. The Sheriff’s Office did obtain a risk protection order (RPO), which allowed it to remove firearms from Renczkowski’s home. The Renczkowskis cooperated with the order, turning over three handguns and ammunition.

Sandra Hurst, a mental health coordinator with the school district, conducted a threat assessment on Renczkowski and agreed with the school resource officer that she did not meet Baker Act criteria, but was offered a chance to meet with a Mobile Response Team from BayCare. Renczkowski refused, but accepted a pamphlet and other resources, and promised to contact the Mobile Response Team if “things got worse.”

She said she had never had any previous mental health issues.

The district’s position

The school district has tried several times to clarify what happened and when, and its latest press release offered a sequence of events that likely will not satisfy those who want a complete overhaul of the county school administration and system.

“Much has been said, rumored and reported about the March 24th incident at Fox Chapel Middle School involving a teacher’s comment,” the district said in its release. “Since the incident, facts have been blurred with misinformation resulting in greater confusion.”

The district also noted that the comment was not made in the presence of students.

According to accounts from the district, Sheriff’s Office and FDOE:

From March 27 to 29, the district says the teacher was removed from student contact and was not on campus. 

On April 12, the Sheriff’s Office issued a press release with information not previously known to the district regarding the risk protection order. The Department of Education contacted Stratton to review the incident and risk protection order criteria.

The same day, the district removed Renczkowski from student contact, and she’s still in that status.

On April 13, Stratton received a copy of the final risk protection order.

On April 14, Florida’s Department of Education posted this on Twitter: “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 (April 12), only then did the district remove the teacher from the school, effective yesterday, Thursday, April 13. Therefore, the teacher is no longer at the school.”

As of April 17, the district is continuing its investigation and the teacher is still off-campus, the district said.

A matter of trust

The muddled responses of the Hernando County School District to the incident involving a teacher making threats has made the story go viral.

Parents locally are up in arms, according to multiple websites. There are more than 900 mentions of “Fox Chapel Middle School” in a search of Google News; 269 replies to the Florida Department of Education’s Twitter posting on the incident; and now the petition calling for the removal of Stratton and the three School Board members.

Board member Shannon Rodriguez is mentioned positively in the petition, and board member Mark Johnson is not mentioned at all.

The Hernando County School District, like other districts in Florida, has been through some tough times. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to limit the spread of the affliction amplified the voices of some who are critical of public education. 

The governor has prohibited measures thought to limit the spread and taken action against school boards that defied him. Locally, some residents have accused the School Board of moving too slowly to obey the governor, or seeking to secretly counteract his rulings.

Fast economic and population growth can put severe stress on a public school system as it tries to keep up with the demands placed upon it. Like its surrounding counties, Hernando has had to deal with shortages of job candidates and lagging pay rates in instructional and non-instructional areas, and the board has taken its lumps. 

Johnson, a former School Board chairman, won back a seat he lost in 2016; and Rodriguez defeated an incumbent, but Monty Floyd’s failure to unseat Duval leaves a 3-2 perceived “liberal” majority on the board that is blocking the will of the conservative county’s parents, some say.

With Stratton a finalist for the superintendent’s job in Brevard County, there are some calling for his resignation even if he doesn’t get the Brevard job because, they say, he has shown his lack of commitment to the county’s schools and its students.

According to the petition, “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.”

Trans community draws scorn

The teacher’s personal life has come into focus, with a group called “Citizens Defending Freedom” condemning in a press release the “recent violence (and hateful rhetoric) by (the) transgender community,” based on the shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn., and the Fox Chapel Middle School incident. 

In headlines in news media across the country, the main emphasis is that a transgender teacher has threatened violence, and the response has been vehement across the country and in Hernando County.

Declarations by school district officials that they are opposed to violence and are working to protect children are not having much effect. Several parents charged at the School Board meeting on April 11 and in online postings that there has been a cover-up going on involving the school district bureaucracy and possibly even the Sheriff’s Office, because — as Citizens Defending Freedom declared in its press release — “If any other group was behaving in such an aggressive manner, we would rightly call them out for it. But it seems that the transgender community is immune from any criticism at all.”

As for the Sheriff’s Office, in its press release, it said, “Just like school discipline of a student, once law enforcement has completed the investigation regarding possible criminal activity, evaluated the individual for Baker Act criteria, and determined whether an RPO is appropriate, our involvement is complete. Employment and/or disciplinary decisions rest solely with the Hernando County School District.”

At this writing, there has been no additional comment from the school district.