Private text messages on private time between coworkers about another teacher did not create a hostile work environment for ag teacher Kelley Ware, the district said.
The Hillsborough County School District has determined that one teacher’s allegations of a hostile work environment at Plant City High School could not be substantiated.
On Monday, Jan. 30, PCHS agriculture teacher Kelley Ware reported to the school district’s Office of Professional Standards (OPS) that there was “inappropriate and unprofessional dialogue” about her between teachers. In a letter to Ware from Johnny Bush, the general manager of professional standards for the school district, Bush said that Ware also stated that her fellow teachers “took and shared photos” of both Ware and students without permission.
Ware’s allegations involve fellow agriculture teacher Michael Paul, 40, and Ware’s department chair, Julia McConnell, 33.
Verizon messages acquired by the Hillsborough County School District show text messages between Paul, McConnell and two of their friends. Both of the friends are involved in local agriculture, but are not teachers at Plant City High School.
Records of conversations provided by the school district begin on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, and continue through Sunday, Jan. 8.
In the conversations, the teachers shared screenshots of some of Ware’s Facebook posts, including one about her attendance at cattle shows. After sharing one in the group text message, Paul, McConnell and their friends made sexually charged jokes about Ware. Discussion that followed included conversation about powdered sugar, lubricant and gloves.
Ware was occasionally in the group messages that occur through January. In the private threads both about Ware and other unrelated topics, McConnell made multiple mentions about deleting the group thread.
Because the conversations between the teachers and their friends were made on their personal cell phones and during personal time — many of the conversations took place on or around Christmastime, coinciding with the students’ winter break from school — the school district determined that no further action was needed by the professional standards department.
On Monday, March 27, Ware received a letter from the school district stating that the case had been officially closed.
At the end of the letter, Bush wrote that “It is my opinion that your coworkers did not use professional discernment, however; their actions do not warrant disciplinary action by this office … It is the District’s expectations that all employees will conduct themselves in a professional manner at all times.”
Paul has served with the Hillsborough County School District since 2002, and Ware since 2003. McConnell has served since 2010.
Neither Paul nor Ware have had a previous OPS, according to school records. McConnell received one letter of reprimand in 2008.
Ware did not respond to requests for comment. It is unknown how she became aware of the text messages between her coworkers.
Plant City High School Principal Susan Sullivan said that Ware came to her about the text messages in January. At the time, she said, she informed her to take the matter to the school district’s office of professional standards. In addition to the ethics course that teachers take once per year, they are advised to act professionally.
“(The staff) is told to be careful and professional in conduct,” Sullivan said.
She added that, despite the incident between the teachers, PCHS students have had a ‘banner year.’
“I don’t want this to give the kids any reason to not celebrate … at their upcoming Baccalaureate or graduation.”
Sullivan also said the incident is not a reflection of Plant City High School as a whole.
“Our kids have done great things and will continue to do great things,” she said. “This community has been supportive of them. Once incident is not reflective of the entire school, our culture, or our staff.”
Lori Yarbrough is the parent of two students at Plant City High School, and serves on the board of Raider Champions. This year, one of her daughters is in a class with Ware.
Yarbrough said she was pleased with the school district’s investigation.
“I think they handled it very appropriately,” she said. “On the grand scale, we’ve never had any problems with any teachers, morally. We’ve never had that kind of issue.”
Contact Emily Topper at firstname.lastname@example.org.