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'Cone of shame' teacher gets fresh start at Pasco Middle

Published Aug. 8, 2012

DADE CITY — Zephyrhills High School science teacher Laurie Bailey-Cutkomp won't lose her job over allegations last spring that she punished misbehaving students by making them wear a "cone of shame" dog collar.

She'll transfer to Pasco Middle School instead.

"She is a certified science teacher, and we've had a very difficult time finding them," Pasco Middle principal Kim Anderson said. "I am very excited that she is going to have this new opportunity. … She starts on Monday and she's excited."

Neither Bailey-Cutkomp nor her lawyer, Mark Herdman, returned calls for comment.

Kevin Shibley, Pasco County school district director of employee relations, confirmed that the district had reached an agreement to allow Bailey-Cutkomp, 48, to keep her job. Because she had not officially signed the document, Shibley said he would not release the conditions.

He also would not explain the circumstances that led superintendent Heather Fiorentino to rescind her recommendation to fire Bailey-Cutkomp.

Back in April, Fiorentino wrote in a termination letter stating that Bailey-Cutkomp's actions showed "extremely poor judgment" and raised grave concerns about her professionalism.

"I am stunned that you would put dog collars on students for any reason," Fiorentino wrote.

Fiorentino did not immediately return a call for comment.

The School Board had been scheduled to hear Bailey-Cutkomp's appeal of her dismissal on July 23. Both sides agreed to call off that hearing, saying they were near a deal that would eliminate the need.

They never rescheduled the session.

United School Employees of Pasco president Lynne Webb said the settlement, which she had not seen, sounded like a common-sense response to Bailey-Cutkomp's action when reviewed after time passed.

"I can only say what I have believed all along, which is that this was an overreach," Webb said of the proposed firing. "Sometimes as more information comes out and time goes on, one realizes it wasn't as egregious as one first thought. I'd like to think the district and superintendent reflected upon the actual circumstances … and the teacher's past performance and determined this was not a firing offense."

According to district records, Bailey-Cutkomp showed the Pixar animated movie Up to students on the Friday before spring break, expecting attendance to be low. In the movie, the character Dug (a dog) wears the "cone of shame" as a punishment for being disobedient.

Some of her students asked Bailey-Cutkomp, who worked in a veterinary office at one point, about the cone — which is commonly used to prevent dogs from licking their wounds. She brought one into class and used it on at least eight students.

"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."

She stopped using the cone only after a parent complained, Fiorentino wrote. The school launched an investigation, which ultimately led to Bailey-Cutkomp's unpaid suspension until the issue could be resolved.

When the suspension went to the School Board for approval, her story became public and quickly went viral.

National media including Fox, CNN and even some entertainment news sites reported on the situation.

Some of the teacher's colleagues defended her, saying Bailey-Cutkomp is a good teacher. At least one student told a media outlet that the "cone of shame" punishments were really a joke.

Bailey-Cutkomp has not spoken publicly about the accusations.

Principal Anderson said she did not go over the details with Bailey-Cutkomp while hiring her: "We just said, 'Let's put the past behind us and look forward to a great school year.' "

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

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