LAND O'LAKES — Angelica Cruik-shank was on the defensive.
The suspended Land O'Lakes High School Spanish teacher sat alone at a table Wednesday, facing tough questions from a school district lawyer about actions six months earlier that had put Cruikshank's job on the line.
For nearly seven hours, witnesses — even her own witnesses — offered details about the teacher's efforts to find out which of her freshman students had written negative comments about her on a private Facebook page. Now it was her turn to give her version of events, and the district's lawyer kept challenging her story that she was only trying to root out cyberbullying.
After nearly an hour of the teacher's testimony, district lawyer Tammy Rattray stared at Cruikshank and asked her simply whether two of the students who described being singled out over the matter were telling the truth.
"They are entitled to feel however they feel," Cruikshank replied. "But there is something called what happened, the facts."
And from her perspective, she said, it seemed like the district had already taken their side.
The Pasco County School Board held this hearing at Cruikshank's request. She had appealed superintendent Heather Fiorentino's recommendation that she be fired for "improperly" gaining access to student Facebook accounts to see if they had said anything negative about her.
The district began investigating after parents complained about the matter. Students said Cruikshank, 33, announced she was withholding permission for some freshmen to attend a field trip to the Salvador Dalí Museum because of suspected negative comments on a private Facebook page created by and for the Class of 2015 International Baccalaureate students at the high school.
"We may be in a new world as far as technology, but wrong is still wrong," Rattray told the board to open the hearing. "It's our contention that students do have a right of privacy. … We believe Ms. Cruikshank violated that right of privacy when she accessed that page."
Cruikshank's lawyer, Melissa Mihok, argued that Cruikshank was not looking for negative Facebook posts about herself, but rather trying to prevent cyberbullying against students. She also suggested that Cruikshank never intended to punish anyone by denying them access to the field trip, but rather that she simply ran out of permission slips on the late January day she was handing them out.
But that's not the way the students recalled things.
Several came forward to say that Cruikshank told them they would not get permission slips to the museum because of "slanderous" things said about her on the private Facebook page. They stated that the most negative things they could think of on the page was their anger at having to do homework she hadn't prepared them for.
One post suggested that she should lose her job.
They spoke about a list that supposedly identified classmates who had said negative things on Facebook or were involved with the Class of 2015 page. That list later was revealed to have been created by a student who had never seen the page, and it included some students who did not even have Facebook accounts.
Employee relations supervisor Tom Neesham, who investigated the complaints, said he found the students he interviewed consistent in their stories, which he had no reason to disbelieve.
"In their own words, and all said it differently, the gist of the matter was that their teacher was upset about something she allegedly saw," Neesham said. "They felt retaliated against . . . belittled, called out by the adult in the room accusing them of slandering her. She let them know she hacked into their private account. . . . They were fearful to return to their class. That's the problem."
Principal Ric Mellin, who had not even seen the Facebook page in question, said he felt Cruikshank's effectiveness as a teacher had been compromised.
Cruikshank repeatedly stressed during her testimony that she was not thinking about retaliation when she handed out the field trip permission slips. She said the plan all along was for everyone to get one.
She did say, though, that she had "trust issues" with some of her students because of other things they had done in her class. She then said she was concerned about possible bullying against one of her students, whose father testified that the girl had not been bullied, except perhaps by the teacher who drew her in to help identify classmates involved in the Facebook pages.
Cruikshank denied forcing students to log on to their Facebook pages to allow her access to the site in question. Instead, she said, they offered willingly. At least two students testified that they did offer, but only because they feared getting in trouble if they did not.
Cruikshank said she tried to report the cyberbullying but was told she needed "concrete evidence." She said she figured the list she got from the student would be a start, and the administration could figure out what was true.
Asked why she didn't tell Neesham her specific concerns when he asked, she said, "I didn't trust him."
Now it's up to the School Board to decide which version of events it trusted. The lawyers are to submit conclusions and recommended findings for the board to consider next month.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.