Outcries over Plant coach Roy Harrison’s ouster reach school board

TAMPA — As a Plant High junior, Kristen Chittenden’s decorated distance-running career was derailed when she became pregnant shortly after helping the Panthers to a girls cross country state title in 1994.

It was at that point, Chittenden recalled Tuesday, when the character and compassion of then-Panthers coach Roy Harrison manifested itself.

“I remember where I was when I told Coach I was pregnant,” recalled Chittenden, whose maiden name is Kristen Knecht.

“We were sitting on the stage area of the courtyard at Plant and he was definitely disappointed, but in that moment he was also incredibly supportive and kind. He was under no obligation to show any additional support or invest any additional time in me when I stopped running, but he did. After (son) Daniel was born, he came over to my house to meet Daniel and offered kind words of encouragement.”

Chittenden was among six Harrison supporters — three former runners, three former team parents — who spoke on the coach’s behalf during the public-speaking portion of Tuesday afternoon’s Hillsborough County School Board meeting.

Harrison, 68, said he was dismissed April 25 by Plant High administrators with no explanation. In 42 seasons as Panthers girls coach, the team won 12 state titles (second-most in Florida history), qualified for the state meet more than 30 times and won more than two-dozen district championships.

In 2014, Harrison was inducted into both the Florida High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame and Florida Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Harrison, set to undergo his initial radiation treatment for prostate cancer next week, didn’t appear at Tuesday’s meeting. Other former runners who spoke Tuesday included Jennifer Harkins — Plant High’s valedictorian for the Class of 1993 — and Francesca Michelini, who competed on three Panthers state title teams in the mid-1990s.

“The only words he got (was), ‘We’re going in another direction,’” said Harkins, an anesthesiologist who ultimately attended the University of Virginia, the USF College of Medicine, UCLA and Stanford. “No explanation, no choice, no conversation, no option to go in that same direction. There was no reason to dismiss (him) in such a heartless manner so close to retiring.”

Michelini said Harrison’s acceptance of her into the program in the summer of 1994 provided her with much-needed stability following a “grueling” custody battle that included foster-care residence due to what she called neglect from her mother.

“He created a positive environment that fostered friendships that have lasted over 25 years, as demonstrated by our support of him today,” Michelini said.

“No matter what race we were competing in, Coach Harrison ensured that while other members were racing they had support on the field and the track. He stationed us throughout the course so each team member would see a smiling and encouraging face as they fought through the pain only a runner can know.”

Harrison indicated Tuesday evening he still has received no reason for his dismissal from Plant principal Kimi Hellenberg or athletic director Evanitta Omensetter, neither of whom responded to emails from the Tampa Bay Times.

Whether the school board will pressure Plant’s administration for answers remains unclear, but veteran board member Lynn Gray lauded Harrison’s service to Plant during a three-minute statement at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Coach Harrison, as a lifelong coach, exemplified the ability to inspire both boys and girls to get the most out of life,” Gray said.

“He continually supported and encouraged and built the confidence of countless women who ran for him and physically with him on Bayshore (Boulevard). He made students believe they could achieve great things in life if they practiced discipline, had a positive mindset and the courage to believe in themselves and who they were and what they could be.”

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