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Some teachers allege 'hostile and racially charged' workplace at Pinellas Park Middle

PINELLAS PARK — Two black teachers at Pinellas Park Middle have requested transfers out of the school, alleging the work environment there has become "hostile and racially charged."

In a letter addressed to Pinellas County school district officials, the presidents of the Upper Pinellas and St. Petersburg branches of the NAACP said the problems began when nine black 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.

The program, open to any student seeking help regardless of race, was approved by principal Dave Rosenberger. But before it could get off the ground, the NAACP says the culture and environment of the school changed.

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"The nine teachers were accused of being racists for forming the mentoring program because they didn't do it for white students," the letter read. It said that because it was not clear which teachers started the program, all minority teachers began feeling pressure from their white colleagues.

"As a direct result of the perceived concerns and overt acts of hostility and racism, the nine teachers recanted their intent to participate," the letter said.

Two teachers, Shawn McCoy and Keturah Mills, requested transfers "for fear of future overt and covert acts of racism and hostility and retaliation." The letter said McCoy and Mills have suffered mental and physical anguish.

The letter suggests that others have also been hurt, stating, "In a culture where teachers were ostracized for helping black students, it is highly probable that those who have not come out publicly are fearful of retaliation."

Pinellas County school spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said the complaint is being reviewed through the district's Office of Equal Opportunity.

NAACP Upper Pinellas Branch president Marva McWhite said Mills has been granted a transfer to Pinellas Secondary School, but McCoy has not, "which suggests there may be disparate treatment as a result of him being a black male," the letter read. Wolf said the district is working to address the request.

McWhite said white colleagues at the school have been hostile, standoffish and have made offensive remarks in front of teachers of color. To protest, she said, 11 black teachers called in sick on Oct. 13.

"I see it is as a form of adult bullying," she said.

Maria Scruggs, president of the NAACP St. Petersburg branch, chimed in.

"I call it outright racism," she said.

The NAACP branches have called on the district to grant McCoy a transfer, reinstate the tutoring program for black students and apologize to the teachers who started the program. They've also requested that Rosenberger attend leadership training in conflict management, crucial conversations and cultural competency.

"For these educators, this experience has taken them to a time reminiscent of the 18th century where it was illegal to teach black people how to read, never imagining that their actions to remediate black children would find them feeling as though they have done something wrong," the letter said.

Reached Friday, Rosenberger said he hadn't seen the NAACP complaint and added that neither teacher has met with him personally to share why they requested a transfer.

He said the main concern among staff members was that the tutoring program would exclude struggling students of different backgrounds or other teachers who wanted to help.

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"I think most of the angst or stress involved over the program was either a lack of information or misinformation," Rosenberger said. "It became very clear that it was not exclusionary in any way."

He said the tutoring program is active and meets once a week with 27 students, who are mostly black, and six teachers. He declined to comment on the 11 teachers who called in sick.

In the Florida Standards Assessments for English language arts, administered last spring, just 22 percent of black students at Pinellas Park Middle scored at or above Level 3, the proficiency level. By comparison, 45 percent of white students were proficient. Math scores broken down by race were not immediately available.

According to data from 2016-17, 14 percent of the school's students were black while white students made up 50 percent of the enrollment.

Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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