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Sarasota Montessori school under investigation for alleged Sunshine Law violation

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SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. (WWSB)--The state attorney's office is now investigating an alleged sunshine law violation at a Suncoast charter school.

This follows an increasingly tense dispute between the school and parents of a former student.

Island Village Montessori School is a remote campus off Clark road. For three years, Jennifer and Jeffrey Buck--parents of 2nd grader Cooper Buck--say they poured time and energy into the school.

"We were a lovely loving family. We planted trees. We loved that school," Jeffrey Buck said. "We loved everything about it and what we did hit a nerve."
 
That "nerve" Buck is referring to was not one particular incident, but a series of conflicts with the school.
 
It began in September when the Bucks' raised concerns about the new principal's policy to prohibit parents from walking their kids to their classroom at the beginning of the school day. Jennifer calls it an important ritual.
 
"I loved giving him a hug at the door and telling him have a great day," Jennifer Buck said." That was part of a ritual that we had set up. And it was important to Cooper and it was important to us."
 
However, when they asked for a meeting to discuss the policy--they say they were denied three separate times.
 
The Bucks' also raised concerns about the hiring of principal Cindy Hoffman. After requesting her personnel file, they say they received a letter form the school calling their behavior "intimidating, threatening and abrasive."
 
It goes on to permanently dismiss the Bucks' and their son Cooper from the school. A decision the school says was given due consideration.
 
"That was that. Not a single conversation. Not a single meeting--nothing," Jeffrey Buck said. "Boom they just kicked our kid out of school."
 
After Cooper was dismissed, the Bucks continued to attend school meetings. Their concern was that their son was not given due process.
 
We reached out to the school, which declined to comment citing pending litigation. In an interview at the time of Cooper's dismissal, the school's executive director Jennifer Ocana explained her concerns about the bucks.
 
"There was just what we felt was threatening behavior from the family also instance of cyber-bullying," Ocana said.
 
The Bucks say they've never been hostile. According to a report from the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office, the school's president of the board of directors is now facing charges for a violation of the sunshine law.
 
Michael Barfield is an expert on our state's sunshine law as vice president of the ACLU of Florida.
 
"They are subject to school board rules, but they have autonomy," Barfield said.
 
While charters answer to the school board, they also have some semblance of autonomy. 
 
"They don't tolerate dissent very well," Barfield said. "They don't tolerate questions. They're not noticing their meetings. It's just a recipe for disaster."
 
Sarasota County School Board member Eric Robinson says while violations of the sunshine law are serious, a first time violation warrants an initial warning.
 
"Not holding to the sunshine law, you first give them the ability to correct rather than closing the school and making all the kids go to different schools i the middle of the year," Robinson said.
 
In this case, Robinson says he doesn't expect a repeat offense.
 
"We've shown them some of the ways in which they can improve their process," Robinson said. "We're here to help them improve. Nobody's here to say gotcha and so hopefully they've learned from their mistakes and we'll move forward."
 
The Bucks say moving forward is out of the question, until they see change.
 
"No one needs the protections when everything's going great," Jennifer Buck said. "It's when an issue arises that we need those protections and we need an unbiased person to come in and help sort the issues out to make sure everyone's protected and treated fairly."