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Internet story of Pasco 'wizard' teacher spreads like magic

LAND O'LAKES — Marge Whaley has been called her share of names during her 16 years on the Pasco County School Board.

But nothing compares to the vitriol of Whaley's correspondence from the past two weeks.

"I've been called the worst things I've been called as a School Board member," said Whaley, who has received as many as 50 angry calls and e-mails a day from all over the country. "I got called an 'effing' idiot on my voice mail. … I got called an incompetent turd."

The subject of their venom? A local TV report about a Pasco substitute teacher who claimed to be fired for "wizardry."

• • •

Ordinarily, the sacking of a substitute teacher doesn't make the news at all.

But Jim Piculas said the magic word when he called the local CBS news outlet seeking help and attention to his story.

"It just sounded outrageous," Channel 10 reporter Janie Porter recalled. "The term 'wizardry' that he used, it sounded like the kind of story that would generate a lot of buzz online and on TV."

So instead of sending his call to some nameless producer behind the scenes, the station sent a crew out to interview him and capture his disappearing toothpick trick on tape.

The May 5 story, with the eye-catching Internet headline "Magic trick costs teacher job," quickly launched the 48-year-old former Marine and banker from Tarpon Springs onto the World Wide Web. The report noted that district officials said "it wasn't just the wizardry," and that Piculas "had other performance issues" such as failing to follow the class lesson plan.

In fact, assistant superintendent Renalia DuBose told the St. Petersburg Times, it wasn't the magic trick at all. Rather, the district had written reports from the principal and a teacher at Rushe Middle School detailing Piculas' use of profane language, his inability to control the class and his decision to put a student in charge — something the student's parent complained about.

But those details got drowned out as the tale bounced from blog to blog. It was the wizardry angle, with all its Harry Potter imagery, that grabbed the spotlight.

"The teacher was very smart," said Sree Sreenivasan, a professor of new media at the Columbia University School of Journalism. "It was in his interest to spin it the way he did. … That's a headline I would click and read."

So, too, would thousands of people across the globe.

A story for bloggers

Dozens of bloggers all over the world linked to the story, offering their own comments about the sorry state of Pasco County, Florida, schools and teachers.

Within a day, mainstream media across the country began picking up on the story, too. Piculas said he has received about 20 calls a day from far-flung locales seeking interviews, all of which he rejected. Perhaps the biggest hit was MSNBC's Countdown With Keith Olbermann, which deemed the Pasco County school district one of its three "Worst Persons in the World" for May 7.

"He did a magic trick in which he made a toothpick disappear. Then he got an urgent summons to a meeting at which the principal accused the teacher of, quote, wizardry. (In mocking voice) 'He turned me into a newt,' " Olbermann said in the broadcast, laughing. "Now, most of Florida is in the Eastern time zone. But apparently Land O'Lakes is one of those pockets that uses its own clock. Their time zone is apparently the Middle Ages."

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino sent Olbermann an e-mail urging him to check the record for himself.

"There were several compelling reasons for the dismissal, none of which were even remotely related to 'Wizardry,' as was suggested in the news accounts," she wrote.

Some local reporters looked at the district files and didn't write about Piculas. Others, including Channel 10, aired follow-ups giving more detail about what happened during Piculas' last classroom stint in January.

Still, the original story slogged on. Each link it received from another Web site pushed it higher up the Google search page, where more people could find it.

Some bloggers urged readers to contact Pasco school officials with their opinions about firing the "wizard."

That they did.

The abuse begins

Whaley appears to have received the most e-mails and calls. But the school also got its share of calls. So did Fiorentino and her secretaries. School Board member Allen Altman said he got about 40 e-mails, mostly from outside Florida, most of which could not be reprinted in a family newspaper.

"It was just amazing to me how crude and profane people would be without doing any research to find out if there was any fact behind what they had read in an online story out of state," he said.

Piculas, who said he never intended for the story to be anything but local, expressed dismay at the arc that it had taken. The reader response particularly bothered him.

"Is there so little going on in these peoples' lives? I don't know what these people are thinking. That they are my advocates and that somehow a profanity-laced e-mail is going to benefit me?" he said. "They've got some issues of their own. If I met any of these board members, I would apologize to them profusely."

Made for the Internet

While there's no set recipe to set a story on fire on the Internet, each one has some similarities.

The stories generally are somewhat outlandish or unusual, Sreenivasan said. It helps if the report has a pithy headline that fits in an e-mail subject line, like "Teacher fired for wizardry."

"This is all par for the Internet course," he said. "These are the stories that some journalists love."

And once a story hits on the Internet, it stays there forever.

"It's very difficult to undo this information once it's out there," said Mary Madden, a senior research specialist for the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

She noted that 11 percent of adult Internet users will Google job candidates' names to see what's been written about them on the Web; and 19 percent look into the Web life of colleagues and co-workers.

That could have ill effects for both Piculas, who is applying for teaching jobs in Hillsborough and Hernando counties, and for the school district, which will be known as the county that fires wizards — at least until the next water-skiing squirrel comes along.

A lessons about truth

The entire chain of events left Whaley with a bitter aftertaste. She found herself disgusted with the nasty comments she received, but also with peoples' seeming disregard for facts.

"It really made me stop and think," Whaley said of the versions of Piculas' firing that made the Web. "Because I go to the Internet for information, say, to look at information on medication I'm taking. Now I'll be more careful.

"You really can't count on every Web site … because you're likely to get information that isn't true," she said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Internet story of Pasco 'wizard' teacher spreads like magic 05/17/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 23, 2008 8:57pm]

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