A complaint filed by parents against a local superintendent has triggered community backlash, both on the ground and online.
The months-long upheaval also elicited an outpouring of support for Peaster ISD Superintendent Lance Johnson.
Kjersti Powers and her husband, Frank, dispatched a bevy of letters to state and local officials in late August outlining their accusations against Johnson. Their complaint stemmed from concerns over the district's optional mask policy during the COVID-19 outbreak and comments the couple said Johnson made during a subsequent meeting with them.
The complaint was recently closed by the Texas Education Agency.
"The Texas Education Agency has reviewed the complaint regarding Peaster ISD; at this time, the agency plans to take no further action on this complaint as many of the concerns noted in it appear to be local in nature," according to a TEA spokesperson. "School districts and local health officials are in the best position to make decisions specific to their respective communities. Other issues raised in the complaint should be handled by the local board of trustees, should the local board deem action necessary.”
Several parents said they stand behind Johnson and the district's decision to make masking optional for students and staff.
"In any leadership role, nobody can make easy decisions in this current environment and it takes a lot to stand up and make a decision," said parent Traci Hamlin, who moved to the community last year. "Mr. Johnson and the administration made the decision based off what their community asked for."
In July, the district presented a slideshow during a town hall, including an analysis of parent survey responses regarding masks, social distancing and other measures.
Hamlin said she feels recent media coverage has shown the district in an unfair light.
"It's not like [Johnson] didn't try to meet the majority of everyone's needs. He did," she said. "I don't understand why people want to complain when they've been given alternatives. What more do you want a school to do?"
Kjersti Powers said since she first publicly discussed the complaint against the district in August, a communitywide argument ensued on Facebook pages.
"The concerning part was that our address was actually put out there," she said.
Screenshots of some of the comments, which have since been deleted, went as far as naming landmark streets near the couple's home.
"There were several individuals who were doing a sort of 'rallying cry' to come to our house," Kjersti Powers said. "One even talked about bringing a 'side-by-side.' Where my husband's from, that means a shotgun.
"Another lady wanted to see pictures of what we looked like 'in case she ever saw us in Walmart.'"
Powers said someone else posted the couple's property tax records online.
"That's really unfortunate because we're all adults here, and if we expect to teach our children to act appropriately, we should be able to do that ourselves," said Megan Henderson, a Peaster native and a mom of four children enrolled in the Peaster school system.
Powers said the couple filed a report with the Parker County Sheriff's Office for documentation purposes.
"We know from our experience as investigators and police officers, we always encourage people — even if you think it's nothing — report it," Kjersti Powers said. "In the times that we're in right now, nothing is normal and this could be nothing or this could be no kidding."
The issue has drawn comments from many in the Peaster community expressing their support for the superintendent, leading to the #IStandWithMrJohnson as well as a petition backing Johnson.
Several parents said Johnson was not the average administrator, regularly helping with pick up and drop off at the elementary campus, and even helping janitorial staff clean up after lunch.
"He's not an administrator that goes and tucks himself away, he gets involved and he's out there," Henderson said. "Every morning, when I drop my kids off at the elementary, rain, snow, whatever, Mr. Johnson is there helping those kids get unloaded."
Ashley McElhenney, mother of multiple Peaster ISD students, said she feels Johnson has given both sides equal rights regarding the mask situation.
"Our superintendent is doing the best he can to look out for our students," she said. "He's told kids they're allowed to wear masks if they feel comfortable, he's told us that we don't have to wear masks if we don't feel comfortable wearing them."
Kjersti Powers said she doesn't understand the divisiveness and animosity the couple has received in the past few months. Her husband Frank said as much in a recent letter to the editor.
"The community is divided, but there are people that want to come forward. There's a lot of fear, even though some of these big voices will say, 'We're not scared, bring it on,'" Kjersti Powers said. "Parents don't know what's going on and they want to come forward and say something but they're scared about what other people are saying.
"We wanted to at least address it and ask, 'Why are we acting like this?' Maybe some of these folks will stop and think for a minute, 'Am I overreacting?'
Nathan Vick, a graduate of Peaster High School who still lives in the community, said he doesn't feel the community is divided.
"It seems like 95 percent of the community is backing Mr. Johnson and a few people are dissenting saying they don't agree with it," he said. "Peaster has made concessions for everybody — they allowed for online learning, making masks optional."
Courtney Butler, a parent of three Peaster ISD students, said she fully supports wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In a letter to the editor she submitted recently, Butler said though she and Johnson shared different views on the wearing of masks, she hasn't felt divided from others who don't wear them.
"I wear one every day to work, to stores and to my children's athletic events at school," she said. "I am often part of a small minority in the audience of PISD events wearing masks. I even wore a mask at a recent planning committee meeting where Mr. Johnson was in attendance.
"He never encouraged me to take off my mask or tried to convince me that I shouldn't have it on. My choice to wear a mask did not divide me from the group whatsoever."
The Weatherford Democrat reached out to Johnson and another district official for comment on the issue, neither responded. Earlier this month, Johnson sent an email to parents listing illnesses logged by district officials since schools returned to session. His dispatch said "both staff and students that have caught a plethora of different illnesses, including STREP, the common cold, a stomach virus, Texas allergies, staph infections and COVID."
As of the district's last COVID-19 report, published by the Texas Department of State Health Services, Peaster ISD listed confirmed cases — three staff members and two students.
In Johnson's email, he noted that the district would not be reporting those illnesses publicly.
McElhenney said she stands by Johnson's statements.
"[COVID is] just like the flu and strep and every other yearly illness that you would normally hear about that you haven't heard this year," she said. "Illnesses happen, kids are going to get sick. That doesn't mean people are doing to die."
For the Powers, who moved their children to a virtual learning option, Peaster's COVID-19 reporting is a transparency issue — information important to parents choosing between virtual and in-person instruction.
"That's good that they're reporting the numbers and those are important in the grand scheme of things, but what about people trying to make a choice in their daily lives or what kind of extra precautions might they need to take for the family," Kjersti Powers said.
Powers pointed to other school districts which send notifications to parents, noting positive cases as well as the campus and grade of infected students and/or staff members.
Hamlin said the responsibility falls on the parent to take appropriate measures if a child is sick, and that she's kept her kids at home when they became sick and waited to make sure they had no symptoms before bringing them back to school.
Henderson said she believes most parents are tired of the issue being publicized.
"School has been back since the middle of August. Let's just get past this, we're all over it at this point," she said. "I understand some people are afraid and want to wear masks and more power to them. At the same time, don't try to force your opinion on the rest of us."