Sunday, January 21, 2018
Education

Pasco teacher fired over Facebook snooping allegations

LAND O'LAKES — A Land O'Lakes High School Spanish teacher has lost her job over allegations she pried into students' Facebook accounts.

Students said Angelica Cruikshank told them she was withholding permission in January for some of them to attend a field trip because of suspected negative comments about her on a private Facebook page. They said she then intimidated the students into letting her look at the Facebook page through their accounts to determine who, if anyone, had made disparaging remarks.

The Pasco School Board on Tuesday voted unanimously to fire Cruikshank, 33, who had appealed superintendent Heather Fiorentino's decision to end her employment. Cruik-shank had been on unpaid suspension since February.

The board heard her appeal in July, but delays in preparing a voluminous transcript of the hearing pushed back the board's deliberations to this week. Members said Tuesday they did not find Cruikshank credible in explaining what happened.

"We had a somewhat unanimous version of the events from all the other witnesses as compared to hers," board member Allen Altman said Wednesday. "Between her own testimony that day I found three instances where it appeared to me she contradicted her own previous statements and testimony."

Those inconsistencies also swayed board member Steve Luikart, who said he would have thought the matter otherwise would have been best handled at the school level.

"There was no consistency in what she said," Luikart said. "It's a whole lot easier to remember the truth."

Luikart, a former high school assistant principal, said he had in the past seen a group of smart students get together and try to devise a plan to get rid of a teacher. But in this case, neither he nor other board members got the sense of that happening.

"I think as a professional the teacher needs to put the interest of the students and their well being ahead of her own interest," said board vice chair Cynthia Armstrong, a former teacher who made the motion to uphold the dismissal. "I don't think that occurred."

The case emerged after parents complained about kids being denied permission to attend a field trip to the Salvador Dali Museum because of the Facebook comments.

The school administration turned the matter over to the district employee relations department, which investigated and brought its findings to Fiorentino. Fiorentino found that Cruikshank did not respect student privacy and further questioned the teacher's judgment.

In her testimony during the July hearing, Cruikshank said she was trying to root out whether one of her own students was being bullied on the Facebook page in question. She said a school assistant principal told her she needed proof, so she set about getting that proof.

That included making lists of students who were suspected of making comments on the page.

She said the distribution of permission slips for the museum field trip was unrelated.

But the father of the girl whom Cruikshank said was being bullied testified that Cruikshank never contacted him to raise concerns. He said he suspected the teacher was using his daughter as a pawn to attempt to extricate herself from her problems.

A teacher whom Cruikshank went to for advice further contradicted Cruikshank's explanations.

"She was very put out by the fact that the kids had posted some very nasty things on Facebook," Susan Henzel-Speer testified. "She and I talked about it. She said, 'I don't know if I should take these kids with me to the Dali Museum. I don't know if I can trust them.' I told her, Angie, you can't do that."

Such testimony, along with the consistent set of facts from the students, impressed upon the board members.

"I didn't feel the employee's testimony was sufficient to make me change my mind," board chairwoman Joanne Hurley said.

Cruikshank attended Tuesday's board meeting but did not speak. She left immediately after the board vote. She did not return calls seeking comment.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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