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Taping forces principal to retire

A middle school principal abruptly retired Friday after admitting she had secretly taped a teacher's private conversation, Pinellas school officials say.

"I was informed that Dr. Martha McKnight, principal at Tyrone Middle School, was accused of taping the private conversation of one of her staff members without that employee's knowledge or consent," schools Superintendent Howard Hinesley said in announcing the retirement.

"I want to emphasize that this conduct, having been confirmed by Dr. McKnight, is not only illegal under Florida law, but it is totally inappropriate and unacceptable behavior for an educational leader in our school district," Hinesley said.

Pinellas schools spokesman Ron Stone said the incident happened March 14 at the St. Petersburg school. A teacher was having a conversation in her classroom with another adult, he said. The intercom was left open and someone in the front office was taping the conversation.

"We don't even know where the tape is or why it was being taped," Stone said. "It didn't sound as if it was that significant a conversation. That's why we can't figure out what the motive was."

The incident is still being investigated.

Stone said this is the first problem the district has had with McKnight.

"Her record is outstanding," he said. "This was just a real lapse in judgment."

McKnight, 57, of Clearwater, has been working with the Pinellas district since 1984 when she began teaching high school. Later, she became assistant principal at Palm Harbor Middle, then moved to Pinellas Park Middle.

She replaced Pinellas Park principal Edward Douglas in 1995. Douglas had been suspended and Hinesley had recommended he be fired for drunken driving and misconduct in office. Rather than fight the charges, Douglas retired.

Later that year, McKnight was moved to Tyrone Middle where she replaced principal Vicki Desmond, who had died of a stroke.

McKnight did not return a phone message asking for comment.

Stone said it is unclear who will replace McKnight. That decision likely will be made next week while schools are closed for spring break.

Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said he was surprised by the news but supported Hinesley's actions.

"I think Dr. Hinesley is correct. There are certain things we cannot tolerate. We don't do that kind of stuff," Moore said. "I just don't understand it, I really don't."