State finds ’cause’ to discipline Leon superintendent over ‘politically charged statements’
Tallahassee Democrat | By Ana Goñi-Lessan | April 27, 2023
The Florida Department of Education has delivered an ultimatum to the Leon County Schools superintendent after investigating whether his “personal views” shaped his administration of the school district.
In a letter to Superintendent Rocky Hanna on April 4, Good Friday, Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr. writes there is probable cause to “justify sanctions against your Florida educator certificate.”
Penalties include a reprimand, fine, probation, restriction of practice, suspension of no more than five years, revocation of no more than 10 years or a permanent revocation of his teaching license.
According to the state complaint, Hanna has four options: a formal hearing with the Division of Administrative Hearings, an informal hearing, a settlement or surrendering his teaching certification.
Hanna has been a vocal critic of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration on social media, in the press and at school board meetings since the governor banned mask mandates in schools during COVID-19. Hanna says that’s made him a target for political retribution.
Against the advice of family and close friends who fear for his future, Hanna sat down with the Tallahassee Democrat and spoke about what triggered the complaint, what he sees as the state’s attempt to silence him and how the investigation is “consuming” him.
He said over the past couple years, he has hired two lawyers, out-of-pocket, to fight state complaints – one of which was effectively dismissed after investigators determined further action wasn’t “warranted.” While many told Hanna to keep his head down as the governor has shown he is willing to target elected officials who disagree with his policies, Hanna said citizens needed to know what is happening.
“I’m tired of living in fear. I’m tired of the toll this has taken on me and my family, especially my wife,” he said after wiping away tears. “If I am to be sanctioned or potentially even worse, I want people to know the truth.”
The state Department of Education did not respond to multiple requests for comment and did not respond to public records requests, going as far back as January, about the investigation. The news comes as DeSantis is preparing to announce a run for president and as he faces criticism from opponents alleging retaliatory action against those attempting to thwart his policies.
According to Hanna, the investigation began after a board member of the local chapter of the conservative group, Moms for Liberty, sent a letter to the governor calling on the superintendent “to be removed from his position.” The letter was stamped with “LET’S GO BRANDON,” a saying popular among conservatives who use the G-rated term in place of “(Expletive) Joe Biden.”
“It’s a sad day for democracy in Florida, and the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, when a state agency with unlimited power and resources, can target a local elected official in such a biased fashion,” Hanna wrote in a statement.
What does the complaint say?
In the DOE complaint against Hanna, the agency lists five alleged violations:
- violating the principles of professional conduct for educators;
- failing to make a “reasonable effort to protect students” from “harmful” conditions to learning, their physical and mental health and safety;
- for failing to take “reasonable precautions” to distinguish his personal views from those of his educational institution;
- for making statements that “intentionally distorted or misrepresented facts” concerning educational matters in public;
- and for “using coercive means or promised special treatment to influence professional judgements of colleagues.”
“How this is being handled and the tactics the Florida Department of Education is using to create this ‘investigation,’ are certainly a serious cause for concern not just for myself, but for any Superintendent or school employee in the State of Florida,” Hanna wrote in a statement.
Origin of the complaint: A letter to the governor from a parent with a “Let’s Go Brandon” stamp
Hanna, who has been an educator for 35 years, first learned his “personal views” were under investigation on Christmas Eve, right before his family was leaving for Mass.
In early 2023, he hired a lawyer, whose first move was to request the DOE case file associated with his investigation.
The only documents Hanna and his lawyer received, he said, were the Christmas Eve letter from DOE and a letter from the parent asking the governor to remove him from office.
He believes the catalyst for the investigation is this letter, written by Leon County resident Brandi Andrews, who in the letter says she serves on the executive board of the Moms for Liberty-Leon County chapter.
In a statement, Andrews told the Democrat her complaint is “one of many.”
“Any assertion that concerns I expressed as a parent should not be presumed as a catalyst for any investigation,” she said.
Moms for Liberty, a conservative parents’ rights advocacy group, has been at the forefront of flipping school boards from liberal to conservative majorities and has pushed the governor’s educational agenda at tense school board meetings across the state.
“I am writing this letter requesting that Leon County School Board Superintendent Rocky Hanna be removed from his position,” reads the first sentence written by Andrews in the letter.
Andrews included an excerpt from an email, a Facebook post and an op-ed in the Democrat, all written by Hanna in August 2022, as examples of “issues we have with our local school board right here in Leon County.”
Before the beginning of the fall semester, Hanna emailed LCS staff: “Let me be clear about one thing– I will always have your back! I realize this is improper grammar but, ‘You do You’! Continue to teach the standards just as you have always done and do not worry for one minute about naysayers political and others who are trying to mislead people and control what you can and cannot say in your classroom.”
That letter drew the ire of the education commissioner in the DOE complaint.
“Respondent’s declaration to teacher that ‘You Do You!’ opens the door to teachers imposing their own individual political and religious views on students and teachers failing to teach with fidelity the Florida standards,” Diaz wrote.Hanna also criticized the governor in a Facebook post for blaming the state’s teacher shortage on unions: “This video is just another example of the governor and his propaganda machine disseminating misinformation and lies in order to create a false narrative of what is actually happening in our schools and in our classrooms. The Governor’s quest for popularity and political gain knows no bounds. This calculated and intentional attack on public schools, centered around complete untruths, has now become part of his legacy.”
Andrews also highlighted a column published in the Tallahassee Democrat and another Facebook post by Hanna and said he was opposed to “parents making educational choices for their children.”
Hanna shared an op-ed he penned for the Democrat and wrote: “You will never hear or see me weigh in on a political issue unless it threatens to harm or disparage our public schools. Six years ago, I made a commitment to our community that, as Superintendent, I would fight for our children — That I would always be a champion for our kids, our teachers and our schools. I meant it!”
In her letter to the governor, Andrews compliments First Lady Casey DeSantis and writes it was an “honor” to film a campaign commercial for the governor.
“We are so incredibly grateful and thankful for your great leadership in Florida… the freest state in the nation!” she wrote.
The words “LET’S GO BRANDON” are stamped next to her signature at the bottom of the page.
The phrase originated in October 2021, when fans at a NASCAR race in Alabama chanted “(expletive) Joe Biden,” but a TV reporter said they were yelling, “Let’s go, Brandon” for the winning driver, Brandon Brown.
In his statement, Hanna calls the phrase “hateful and divisively partisan” and says it demonstrates how the DOE investigation is overtly political.
The investigation “has everything to do with attempting to silence myself and anyone else who speaks up for teachers and our public schools in a way that does not fit the political narrative of those in power,” Hanna said in his statement.
The education commissioner, however, concluded that Hanna’s “politically charged statements, when expressed by him to educators, have the potential of disseminating in the classrooms of those educators.”
State references COVID battle over masks from 2021
The latest inquiry into Hanna’s management of the district includes new allegations that stem from 2020 in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Included with Diaz’s April 4 letter is a complaint from DOE, which outlines the agency’s allegations of misconduct against Hanna.
“These additional ‘material allegations’ were not included in the initial letter I received on December 24, 2022, Christmas Eve, nor was I given the opportunity to address them and defend myself,” Hanna wrote in his statement.
The complaint reads: “Respondent…has a history of defying the law or failing to follow the law with fidelity as demonstrated in August of 2021 when Respondent mandated the wearing of masks in Leon County Schools in conflict with an executive order issued by the Governor of Florida on July 30, 2021, that required leaving decisions related to the health of students with the parents,” the complaint reads.
That August, Hanna enforced masking for kindergarten through eighth grades, rebuffing the state’s executive order, after a third grader from Canopy Oaks Elementary School died from COVID-19 in the first couple weeks of the 2021 school year.
While the mask mandate battle endured for months as Leon County and other Florida school districts argued in court over the requirements, the school board members’ salaries were withheld. Then, the Legislature threatened to withhold school recognition funds.
The district eventually fell into compliance with the state that October when it dropped its mask mandate as COVID cases waned.
The next month, then-Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran thanked the Leon County and Brevard County school districts for reversing their mask requirements and empowering parents: “Let’s keep working together to provide students a world-class education.”
Even after dropping case, state points to school resource officer shortage
The second allegation in the complaint states Hanna did not staff enough school safety officers for every LCS campus in the fall of 2020, a violation of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.
According to records, Corcoran sent a letter Oct. 2, 2020, stating Hanna had three days to adequately staff all school campuses with a school-safety officer.
Hanna responded on Oct. 5 and said while the coverage rate was at 95%, the district was having difficulty with staffing law enforcement because of the pandemic, hurricane support deployment and protests.
Corcoran, disappointed with Hanna’s response, gave him until Oct. 8 to provide examples of how the district would ensure coverage at every LCS campus. By that date the district had staffed 100% of its schools using help from neighboring counties and the police department, Hanna said.
According to a letter dated Dec. 14, 2020, from the office of professional practices at DOE, that issue was resolved with “no further action warranted.”
State targets letter about excused absences for protest
The complaint also includes an email sent to the Leon County Schools teachers and staff on Feb. 14 informing parents that a “civic-engagement event” was taking place at the Florida Capitol, and if students were to attend they must have a parent sign them out or notify the school for an excused absence.
The event was a rally to protest DOE’s rejection of the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American Studies course. The protest drew hundreds for a march on the Capitol.
“Respondent’s encouragement, by offering a free day off from school, of student participation in a demonstration challenging the policies and decisions of the state agency charged with enforcing and interpreting the educational statues and rules of the state of Florida, is another example of Respondent failing to distinguish his political views from the standards taught in Florida schools,” the complaint reads.
On Feb. 15, the day after the email was sent, Moms for Liberty-Leon County posted the following on its Facebook page: “So does this mean for future ‘civic engagements’ such as pro life or school choice rallies, kids will also be excused? Makes you wonder what Governor Ron DeSantis would think considering Hanna is currently under investigation with FLDOE regarding his political views and his job.”State-finds-cause_PDF-manny-diaz-letter