Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Education

Pasco teacher fights for job amid Facebook snooping allegations

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.

Comments

Five Hernando County educators nominated for LifeChanger of the Year Awards

Hernando County Public Schools has five educators in the running for prizes ranging from $3,000 to $10,000 in the 2017-2018 national LifeChanger of the Year awards. The program will give out 17 awards.Travis Bruns and Doug Poteet of Pine Grove Elemen...
Updated: 4 hours ago
More teacher protests and another charter school approval expected at the Hillsborough County School Board meeting

More teacher protests and another charter school approval expected at the Hillsborough County School Board meeting

TAMPA — This will seem familiar: Teachers are mobilizing to protest outside Tuesday’s Hillsborough County School Board meeting about their frozen pay rates.And this too: A vote is expected on a new charter school.Florida Connections Academy is a virt...
Published: 01/23/18
Romano: Once again, state education leaders fail this simple test

Romano: Once again, state education leaders fail this simple test

Want to annoy an education leader in Florida?Tell them they’ve turned your child’s school into an assembly line of tiny test takers. Tell them innovation and imagination and excitement are rapidly disappearing in favor of teaching to the test.And whe...
Published: 01/23/18
Pinellas to look at high school start times today

Pinellas to look at high school start times today

Pinellas County school district officials have spent weeks analyzing bus routes and brainstorming ideas to see if later high school start times could be a reality this August.Today will tell how far they have come.Clint Herbic, associate superintende...
Published: 01/23/18

Class Notes for Jan. 26

Theatre/Art/MusicCenter for the Arts at River Ridge, 11646 Town Center Road, New Port Richey. (727) 774-7382.• The center’s Learn it Live! series presents The Three Little Pigs, at 10:30 a.m. Jan. 24- 25. Pre-K – grade 4. Public show at 11 a.m. Jan. ...
Published: 01/23/18
USF leaders move to calm fears over consolidation plan

USF leaders move to calm fears over consolidation plan

ST. PETERSBURG — Holding a piece of computer paper and a microphone, the leader of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg began a Friday afternoon forum by repeating the USF administration’s new mantra.He reassured the crowd before him that t...
Published: 01/19/18

Crews Lake thespians overcome the odds

SPRING HILL — It’s 8:30 a.m. — "homeroom" period in school speak — when kids in the Crews Lake Middle School drama club file into an empty chorus room to begin rehearsing under the direction of language arts teacher Kristen Sykora. There’s only 25 m...
Published: 01/19/18
Cuts hit top school leaders as Hillsborough sheds three six-figure salaries

Cuts hit top school leaders as Hillsborough sheds three six-figure salaries

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins on Friday announced the first in a series of belt-tightening moves that include the elimination of three six-figure positions.Jobs now held by Wynne Tye and Larry Sykes will no longer exis...
Published: 01/19/18
Tampa Bay schools warn parents about flu activity, dangers

Tampa Bay schools warn parents about flu activity, dangers

The Florida Department of Health has reported a sharp increase in flu activity in the last several weeks, prompting area schools to send out letters warning parents about the virus. At least two districts, however, say that flu activity in their scho...
Published: 01/19/18

More than 400 apply to Pasco technical high school

School choice for 2018-19 is in full swing, and district officials said they’ve been pleased with the interest they’ve seen so far.The window for applying to the district’s magnet schools closed Jan. 12, except for applications for the new Wendell Kr...
Published: 01/18/18