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Pasco teacher accused of policing students' Facebook comments

LAND O'LAKES — Concern over what her students were saying about her on Facebook could cost a Land O'Lakes High School Spanish teacher her job.

Angelica Cruikshank, a district teacher since 2008, faces firing after a district investigation revealed that she had "improperly" gained access to students' Facebook accounts in January to determine whether they had made negative comments about her.

She then shared the information with other students and tried to use it to bar some of the teens from attending a class field trip to the Salvador Dalí Museum, according to a termination letter from superintendent Heather Fiorentino. "This situation is very troubling to me," Fiorentino wrote. "You seem unaware of student privacy concerns and used extremely poor judgment in taking the steps you took to address these concerns."

Cruikshank, who is suspended without pay, has hired Tampa lawyer Melissa Mihok in an effort to keep her job. Her request for a formal hearing with Fiorentino, which is scheduled for after spring break, kept the dismissal off the School Board's agenda Tuesday.

Reached by phone, Cruikshank, 33, said she could not talk about the matter because it remained under investigation. She said her letter of rebuttal would explain her side of the story.

Mihok declined though a secretary to talk to the Tampa Bay Times.

District employee relations director Kevin Shibley said Cruik­shank's file did not contain any written rebuttal from her. He said the district's investigation is complete, as "we haven't been presented with any information that the information in (Fiorentino's termination) letter is inaccurate."

School Board members did receive an email from Cruik­shank's husband, Ian, in which he defended her. "My wife had no knowledge she was doing anything wrong and was trying to do what she thought was best," he wrote. "No punishment was brought down on the students that made the demoralizing remarks. The only thing that transpired is the students have lost one of Pasco Counties (sic) best teachers."

He suggested that the only thing his wife did wrong was allowing a student to access her Facebook page on her cellphone. He said she did not share any information with others.

"I appeal to you to consider what harm was done and does the punishment fit the crime," Ian Cruikshank wrote. "If you would not fire a person for having sex on school property and fire a great teacher for trying to do what she thought was best is a true injustice."

(Four years ago, a plant manager got a 10-day suspension after he was caught on video having sex with a subordinate employee in the Wiregrass Ranch High School cafeteria. He was fired last year after new allegations of sexual harassment.)

District officials saw things differently in Angelica Cruikshank's case, though, after interviewing the teacher and her students.

Fiorentino detailed in her letter a scenario where Cruikshank learned that some students might have made disparaging remarks about her on a Facebook page she could not access, and then she took matters into her own hands. She reportedly called a student to the front of the classroom on Jan. 30 and told the girl to sign onto her Facebook account on Cruikshank's personal cellphone.

"Other students reported they were told in front of the class that they were not going on the class trip because of posting comments on Facebook," Fiorentino wrote. "One of these students was so upset about being singled out in class that he sought you out during his lunch period. He gave you his phone, after signing into his Facebook account and allowed you to search through his account."

Next, Fiorentino continued, the district investigator learned that Cruikshank gave a small group of students a list with red marks next to the names of those suspected of making comments. She asked them to review Facebook accounts and write "ok" next to those who did not write anything negative.

In the end, Fiorentino wrote, "students who were originally suspected of making comments on Facebook about you did not receive permission slips when all the other students did."

Some parents called and sent emails complaining about Cruik­shank and her treatment of their children.

"The teacher told my daughter to log on to her Facebook account on the teacher's phone so that the teacher could go to the Facebook group to see what was said about her," wrote parent Amy Luce. "The teacher then proceeded to show my daughter's Facebook page to a group of kids the next period on the projector."

Luce wrote that she was "beyond disgust" with the teacher's actions. "I want to make sure my daughter is protected and will not have her grades affected nor be bullied by this teacher," she wrote.

Another parent, Leslie Passero, shared her concerns with district officials and wrote that her son was "mortified" that other students told her about Cruikshank's behavior.

Cruikshank remains on suspension while awaiting her meeting with Fiorentino. If Fiorentino does not change her position, Cruikshank could request a hearing before the School Board.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Leslie Passero, one of the parents who emailed Pasco school district officials with concerns about teacher Angelica Cruikshank, wrote that her son was "mortified" that his friends told her about the teacher's behavior. The original version of this article misstated the context of her statement.

Pasco teacher accused of policing students' Facebook comments 03/21/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 22, 2012 10:26am]
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