ZEPHYRHILLS — A Zephyrhills High School science teacher faces dismissal amid allegations that she used a "cone of shame" dog collar to discipline students.
Pasco County schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino has recommended firing physical science teacher Laurie Bailey-Cutkomp, 47, for putting the collar — the type used to prevent animals from licking themselves after surgery — on at least eight of her ninth-graders on two days in April.
Zephyrhills High administrators said they first learned of the teacher's actions after parents pointed out photos on Facebook of the students with the cones.
"I am stunned that you would put dog collars on students for any reason," Fiorentino said in a letter to Bailey-Cutkomp, a district teacher since 1999. "I am very concerned that you used this collar to punish and embarrass students in front of their peers."
Reached by phone Wednesday, Bailey-Cutkomp said she could not comment. She referred calls to her lawyer, Mark Herdman, who was in depositions and not available.
Bailey-Cutkomp, who is accused of violating district and state ethics rules, has requested a hearing before the School Board to appeal the superintendent's decision. A date has not been set. She is no longer in the classroom while awaiting the hearing.
In her letter, Fiorentino outlined the details leading to her recommendation. Expecting low-attendance around spring break, Bailey-Cutkomp showed the Pixar movie Up on the Friday before the break started and the Monday after it ended. That in itself created problems because it wasn't part of her lesson plans and instead was designed to use up time.
In the movie, the character Dug (a dog) wears the "cone of shame" as a punishment for being disobedient.
Bailey-Cutkomp, who reportedly worked previously in the veterinary field, brought a cone into her classes after students asked about them.
"When asked how you selected students to wear the collar, you explained that you initially used it to redirect student behavior," Fiorentino wrote. "You also stated that some students requested to wear the collar to see how difficult it was to eat and move around while wearing it. Finally, you stated that you gave some students the option of either wearing the collar or sitting at the tardy table when they arrived late to your class."
In a written statement, one student who was drinking soda in class, explained how Bailey-Cutkomp used it.
"I was in second period. I was drinking soda, and she said, 'Do I have to put the cone on you?' " wrote the student, whose name was not disclosed. "I didn't say anything and she put it on me."
The teacher stopped using the collar after learning that one student's mother had commented on Facebook that it was inappropriate to make students wear it. Bailey-Cutkomp later told district investigators later that it "probably" was a bad idea to put the collar on students, Fiorentino stated.
"You said that you intended for the collar to be 'innovative' and 'related to real world situations,' but that it did not work," Fiorentino wrote. "You stated that you intended for the collar to be a joke and that you did not intend to be malicious but that you heard after the fact that some students were embarrassed."
School Board members said they did not want to talk about the case, because they will be asked to determine the teacher's fate with the school district. Board member Steve Luikart said he received letters from a handful of Zephyrhills High teachers supporting Bailey-Cutkomp generally as a good teacher, while still deploring the specifics of the "cone of shame" accusations.
"I believe that Laurie Bailey-Cutkomp is an excellent instructor and role model for students at any school," science teacher Steven L. Wilkinson wrote. "She is an asset to the teaching profession and should be allowed to retain her present position."
Bailey-Cutkomp began working at Zephryhills High School as a substitute and was hired full-time in 2002.
"Whatever mistake Ms. Bailey-Cutkomp made, it was a mistake that I doubt she will make again," wrote ninth-grade teacher James Washington. "Furthermore, what I have witnessed at ZHS certainly makes me believe that she has much to offer the students."
Board members noted the seeming irony that student photos taken in class and posted to Facebook helped a district investigation into teacher wrongdoing. The board has struggled for months to craft a policy that controls unauthorized use of photos and videos taken in school.
"That definitely added to the body of evidence," board member Alison Crumbley said.
Luikart, a retired high school assistant principal who favors restricting the taking and distribution of those pictures, said the district would have learned of Bailey-Cutkomp's actions eventually.
"Students talk. Parents make phone calls," he said. "The photographs just made it a little bit quicker."
Board vice chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said she had no problems with the photos being taken. As for putting them on Facebook, that's another thing.
"It's one thing to show pictures in private to the superintendent or a person in charge, versus showing them publicly," she said.
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.