TAMPA, Fla. — The principal of Plato Academy’s Tampa campus said the charter school plans to appeal a decision from a county land use hearing officer that would require it to remove a privacy screen from the fence surrounding its buildings. 

“It is honestly quite terrifying for me,” Principal Heather Jenkins said of learning the school was not granted a variance to keep the screen. “I’m not just a principal - I’m also a mother. My daughter’s in eighth grade here. I don’t know if people think about what it’s like to be the principal of a school - 400 kids, 45 teachers.

"And think about it....it’s on me to keep them safe day in and day out.”

What You Need To Know

  • Plato Academy charter school puts up privacy screen on fence during expansion

  • County land use hearing officer requiring school to remove a privacy screen

  • Principal says screen goes toward hardening school access

Jenkins said Plato Academy purchased the blue screen with $3,000 in federal grant money meant to go toward hardening schools following last year’s deadly shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX. 

“It has meant a great deal,” Jenkins said of the screen. “We all know as administrators, as educators, that there’s only so many things you can do to keep your school safe, but one of these things was having a higher fence line and a privacy fence attached to the outside so that people cannot get a foothold and climb this fence and have access to our children.”

According to a report on a Hillsborough County land use hearing officer’s decision on the matter, code enforcement served a notice of violation to the school last December 21. Jenkins said she was told it was spurred by a neighbor’s complaint.

The report shows six people, including Jenkins, parents of students, and the head of maintenance for Plato Academy’s nine campuses, spoke at an October 23 hearing on the variance request. All supported keeping the screen in the interest of school safety. No one spoke in opposition.  

“I just heard about it today, and I’m kind of appalled with it,” said Lawne Snyder of the variance denial.

Snyder’s son is in third grade at Plato, and his wife is a vice principal. 

“When you look around, there’s other houses that have half screens on that don’t look anywhere near as nice as these do,” Snyder said.

The report states that while the variance request and hearing testimony raised issues of student safety and privacy, there was no evidence to show the privacy screen enhances safety. It says school safety best practices documents from the Florida Dept. of Education suggest fence coverings could actually hinder sight for law enforcement conducting investigations. The document also says the blue screen is “unlike other fence materials in the community and is intrusive in appearance.”

Principal Heather Jenkins said Plato Academy purchased the blue screen with $3,000 in federal grant money meant to go toward hardening schools following last year’s deadly shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX. (Spectrum News/Sarah Blazonis)

Neighbor Reva Clemson agrees.

“It was a color that doesn’t blend into the nature. It just looks like an odd thing out there and very unattractive,” Clemson said.

Clemson said she’s lived in the neighborhood for 50 years, and her backyard is up against the school fence. She told Spectrum Bay News 9 she didn’t reach out to code enforcement about the fence but is glad it’s expected to come down.

“Other schools have had these wire fences, and I’ve never known any problem with them,” Clemson said. “There’s never anybody I know of climbing over a fence.”

Some of Clemson’s neighbors said they weren’t bothered by the screen.

“I don’t have a problem. I don’t understand,” said neighbor William Muncey of not knowing why some want it removed.

Jenkins said the school has to remove the screen by Friday, and she wants the community to know why it’s coming down.

“We’re doing what we can, and they want us to stop. They want us to reverse because it doesn’t look good for the city,” she said.

Next up, Jenkins said the school plans to request an extension to file an appeal in hopes of reversing that decision.