The Pinellas County School District has determined that no racial discrimination occurred at Pinellas Park Middle after two black teachers requested transfers in October, alleging that the work environment became "hostile and racially charged."
The district’s Office of Equal Opportunity investigated the complaint submitted by the Upper Pinellas and St. Petersburg branches of the NAACP. They said problems began when nine minority teachers banded together over the summer to develop an after-school tutoring program primarily for black students, who scored the lowest on this year’s state English language arts exam. Aside from academics, the program included mentoring and cultural competency elements.
Though the four-page review written by Seymour Brown, the district’s director of human resources, found no basis for racial discrimination, the review shines a light on the events that led to concerns among staffers.
Brown wrote that issues stemmed from a conversation between Paula Johns, a teacher involved in the after-school program, and Carolyn Bystrycki, the school’s family and community liaison. Bystrycki "expressed concerns the tutoring program would only be available for African-American students," Brown wrote, while Johns "perceived it as an accusation that the teachers who were promoting the program were racist."
Brown wrote that several people interviewed felt that Bystrycki, whose job includes recruiting mentors and volunteers, intentionally delayed finding mentors for the program.
Brown wrote that a list of 27 possible mentors was submitted in August to Bystrycki, who said in an email that she would coordinate a training session, but never did. She wrote in another email that the process for becoming a mentor takes six weeks; however, Brown said the district’s family and community engagement office denied that the process takes that long.
Of those 27 possible mentors, just three were registered as district volunteers as of Nov. 8, Brown wrote.
"It is possible that any delay in processing and training tutors could be perceived as a lack of support for the tutoring program," Brown wrote. "However, I am not able to conclude that racial hostility played a role as alleged."
He wrote that Bystrycki said she worked only four hours a day and "does not have the time to accomplish everything expected of her."
Reached Tuesday, Bystrycki hung up on a Tampa Bay Times reporter.
Brown noted in the review that no one he interviewed could point to a specific incident that might be described as a hostile environment, nor could they describe any specific incident of pressure from a colleague white or black.
"Based on my interviews with 14 people, I was unable to locate someone who felt ostracized," he wrote.
Other people interviewed by Brown said they perceived a lack of support from the school administration, particularly principal Dave Rosenberger, who they said did not address their concerns in a timely manner. The review notes the delay was in part caused by Hurricane Irma.
Brown wrote that the majority of concerns reported during interviews "came from third-party hearsay conversations" and material found on Facebook and Facebook Live.
Brown said in his review that the after-school program, officially named Educated Minds, is still active with about 22 to 27 students participating. He included six recommendations for the school, ranging from providing site-based training opportunities for cultural diversity and conflict resolution to developing "a comprehensive plan for the school to support not only African-American students but all students who are in need of academic support."
Rosenberger said Friday that many of Brown’s recommendations are already in place, as are "efforts to increase the number of active mentors on campus."
"As a school leader and educator, the report has provided me many items to reflect upon," he said.
Brown could not be reached for comment.
The two teachers who requested transfers, Keturah Mills and Shawn McCoy, now teach at Pinellas Secondary School. Bystrycki has applied for nine support employee jobs at six schools, most of which have high populations of black students.
Marva McWhite, president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas County Branch of the NAACP, wrote in an email to Brown, Rosenberger, district attorney Kerry Michelotti, area superintendent Pat Wright and school superintendent Mike Grego that it wasn’t surprising that Brown found no fault at the school. She said her branch will continue to monitor the school.
"Not until there are corrective actions and consequences for school officials and staffers that openly engage in discriminatory practices and policies that adversely impact minority students will there really be a change," she wrote.
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.