Last Updated: 4:32 p.m.
On Tuesday morning, Holly Pane, the director of operations at Imagine School at Town Center, sent out a mass email to staff and administrators about a coming fire inspection. “We got word yesterday that they will be out sometime over the next week or two, but do not have an exact date,” Pane wrote.
Pane then outlined “a few things that they look for,” reminding staff, for example, to ensure that laminated fire-escape maps are “on the wall and not in your red emergency folder,” and that the folder should always be hanging near the classroom door. All of that was in the category of routine reminders.
What Pane wrote next was not.
“He ALWAYS checks on any pillows, bean bags, fabric chairs, etc. to see if they have tags on them,” she wrote. “If you have any of these items in your classroom and they do not have a tag on them, they MUST be removed from your classroom until after the inspection” (emphasis added).
In her last point, Pane wrote: “I know this one seems silly, but they always make a comment to us if the hand sanitizers are within children’s reach. So please make sure all hand sanitizers that are in the classroom are on the teachers desk and need to be requested for use (just for the next couple of weeks)” (emphasis added).
The email went out to all teachers and administrators, including Principal James Menard, as well as to the regional director’s office. Imagine is a publicly funded but privately run charter school that’s part of a larger Imagine system. It is one of 17 Imagine schools in Florida, with such schools in 10 other states.
Pane’s wasn’t the first such email. In December 2013, she sent a shorter email to staff informing them of an inspection the following day, asking all to “unplug all plug in air fresheners” and “if you have any ‘extra’ pillows or what not please remove them until after the inspection,” strongly suggesting that the pre-inspection preparation—and post-inspection return to business as usual—may be routine at the school.
An Imagine school parent who asked for anonymity was left livid by the email’s suggestion that safety should be dependent only on an impending inspection. “Imagine,” the parent said, “what they cover up when a health inspection is near, or what they may falsify on anything, for that matter.”
Palm Coast Fire Chief Mike Beadle—whose inspector, Jeff Pattee, conducts inspections at Imagine—was also incensed by the suggestion that problematic items can be put back after the inspection, or that keeping hand sanitizers out of the reach of children “seems silly.”
“That’s crazy right there,” Beadle said, noting that fire inspectors stress keeping sanitizers out of reach “because the kids can get sick and get it in their eyes and the whole bit. That doesn’t make me very happy, to be honest with you. And the fallacy of it. Now they’re putting it on paper to just put it back and don’t worry about it. That’s a liability I wouldn’t want to take on.”
Beadle said it wasn’t surprising that a place about to be inspected would take certain extra precautions, but the response, he said, was, and he generally doesn’t see it from businesses. “Businesses really, really take it to heart because we’re here to help, we’re here to protect, and we’re here to keep people safe.”
Contacted Wednesday, Pane acknowledged sending the email but said it wasn’t meant to convey the impression that teachers or other staff could go back to doing what inspectors say they should not do.
“I can see how that sounds that way,” Pane said. “The majority of our teachers follow protocol, they will remove the item and they will not be brought back in and they will remove them to where they’re supposed to be kept. I’ve had several teachers reply back to that email to state the items have already been taken care of.” She added, “I chose improper wording on that. Any time we have an inspection and if we have an issue, I reiterate to my staff where the issues were. I chose improper wording.”
Asked why she had chosen that wording, Pane said, “I don’t think that I could answer that.”
Pattee conducts about 1,600 inspections a year. At Imagine, as he does at every school, he conducts the fire inspection simultaneously with April Dixon, an inspector with the Flagler County School Board, who conducts the health and safety inspection. “I’ve pretty much seen it all,” Pattee said of attempts to circumvent inspectors. “Good luck with that.”
On the whole, Pattee said, he had no issues with Pane’s email except of course regarding the return of unsafe items after the inspection. (The matter of tags on furniture is important, he said, because inspections focus on fire-retardant properties, which are certified by the tags.)
Menard, the principal, who received the email, did not comment back to Pane about it, she said. Menard did not return a call before the story’s initial publication. Nor has there been a follow-up email since from her to staff. “There probably will be now,” Pane said.
Later this afternoon, Menard said in an email: “Please know that as the school leader it is my aim to keep all students safe, all year-round not just ‘for a couple of weeks'” He included a copy of the email he sent to school staff. It read:
Upon reviewing Holly’s email carefully I wanted to make a couple of clarifications. In reading the email it seems as if it is being suggested that we remove any items which are not fire-safe only for the duration of the inspection period. Due to our desire to maintain a safe environment for all members of our community: students, staff, and parents please ensure that any items such as furniture, cushions, curtains, etc. which are not labeled as fire or flame retardant are removed from your classroom immediately and for the duration of the school year. This will help to ensure that we are doing all we can to protect our students.
In addition, I think it is important that hand sanitizer in the classroom be kept in an area that is out of reach of students at all times, and if it is to be used it should be disbursed by the teacher and then returned to a safe area. This will serve as an additional safeguard for student safety.
Imagine, Pane said, has never been cited by the fire inspector, though inspections usually result in a few recommendations, which is common.
Beadle said surprise inspections are rare and occur only at problematic places with non-compliance issues. But, he said, the Imagine email will likely prompt a different approach. The fire inspector, for one, “will probably have a little chat with the principal when he goes in.”