Hillsborough teacher targeted by co-workers’ salacious texts

Left to Right: Plant City High School agriculture teacher Michael Paul, department head Julia McConnell and Plant City High School teacher Kelley Ware.

PLANT CITY, Fla. (WFLA) — A Plant City High School teacher reported possible sexual harassment to her principal involving two co-workers. Now, she faces an uncertain future.

Agriculture teacher Kelley Ware was the subject of sexually explicit text messages that demeaned and frightened her.

“Not only is it hurtful, it’s damaging and it’s affecting me emotionally,” she said.

This texting scandal began when at a school function and unbeknownst to Ms. Ware, a parent took an unwanted photo of her bending over grooming a cow, the top of her back side slightly exposed.

According to school district records I obtained, the photo elicited disgusting dialogue from, among others, fellow agriculture teacher Michael Paul and Ms. Ware’s department head, Julia McConnell.

The texts are too vile for television and for print.

They involve remarks about Kelley Ware’s anatomy, powdered sugar, sex, cows, gallons of lube, artificial insemination, long plastic gloves and more.

We reviewed more than 300 pages of text messages, Kelley Ware is referenced on more than 23 pages and in hundreds of messages.

According to Ms. Ware, Julia McConnell’s husband found them on his wife’s cell phone. He told Ms. Ware that the texts were awful and could affect her job and safety. Then he sent them.

“Oh my God,” Kelley stated. “The next day I had to go to work seeing all this information and work in close proximity to these two.”

She did what school district policy says she should do, she notified her principal.

It took three weeks before a school district investigator showed up at Plant City High School.

“She’s going to work every day, knowing that these individuals are talking about her in a sexual way and that can potentially create a hostile work environment for her,” said Jason Bent, a professor of employment law at Stetson University’s College of Law.

“I did my job, because I truly believed the school district would stand behind me and say ‘we’re not going to have this here,'” explained Ms. Ware.

Maybe not.

The school district’s investigation found that indeed, several of Kelley Ware’s “co-workers made comments” about her on “their personal cell phones during their personal time.” It concluded,” their actions do not warrant disciplinary action.”

Kelley Ware did go before a judge and was granted a temporary restraining order.

At a follow-up hearing, Judge Robert Beach said he couldn’t grant a permanent order, but lectured Michael Paul and Julia McConnell.

“I think the conduct of these people is reprehensible there’s no excuse for it, particularly from teachers in a school,” stated Judge Beach.

School Superintendent Jeff Eakins wouldn’t clear his schedule to talk about this. I caught him coming out of a reading workshop at Amalie Arena and asked how something a judge described as reprehensible could happen and no one was disciplined?

“Well I once again it, it, the issue deals, Steve, with where it takes place. We have to give due process to our employees, certainly through this process, but the impact is, did it impact kids? Is it outside the environment of our school? And so, that’s where this all took place. It didn’t happen on our campus, so that’s kind of part of the investigation and how they determine the outcome,” Mr. Eakins said.

Had the superintendent seen any of these texts?

“I have not seen any of the texts,” he replied.

Professor Bent understands the school district can’t monitor everyone’s personal text messages, that would not be legal. But, the school district knows about these.

“They can’t bury their heads in the sand, when there’s a hostile work environment going on,” said Professor Bent.

The school district notified Ms. Ware that her allegation of a hostile work environment could not be substantiated.

Two weeks later, an email from her principal informed her that her position at Plant City High School has been eliminated.

“I already feel black listed at this point,” said Ms. Ware.

At the end of the day, she is the one being transferred. Does that translate into retaliation?

“Oh that, there’s nothing, there there’s totally a different issue ,” Superintendent Eakins said. “It’s about the units in the school and the process for pool placement and that has nothing to do with this particular investigation.”

Efforts to contact Michael Paul and Julia McConnell were not successful.

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