Florida teacher suspended for playing social media police

For once, a school district has decided that, yes, there are more important things for teachers to be worrying about than what students say about teachers on Facebook. Like, say, student privacy and free expression rights.

The Tampa Bay Times is reporting that Pasco County School District in Florida has suspended Land O’Lakes High School Spanish teacher Angelica Cruikshank because of accusations she engaged in a series of actions designed to investigate whether students were saying negative things about her on Facebook. The district is conducting an investigation to determine whether Cruikshank will be fired.

According to the Times:

[Superintendent Heather] Fiorentino detailed in her letter [to Cruikshank] a scenario where Cruikshank learned that some students might have made disparaging remarks about her on a Facebook page she could not access, and then she took matters into her own hands. She reportedly called a student to the front of the classroom on Jan. 30 and told the girl to sign onto her Facebook account on Cruikshank’s personal cellphone.

Then, Fiorentino allegedly decided to punish the students she believed to have slighted her by denying them permission to go on a field trip to a museum:

Next, Fiorentino continued, the district investigator learned that Cruikshank gave a small group of students a list with red marks next to the names of those suspected of making comments. She asked them to review Facebook accounts and write ‘ok’ next to those who did not write anything negative.

In the end, Fiorentino wrote, ‘students who were originally suspected of making comments on Facebook about you did not receive permission slips when all the other students did.’

If this wasn’t weird enough yet, the story quotes an email from Cruikshank’s husband to school board members defending his wife’s actions, writing, “My wife had no knowledge she was doing anything wrong and was trying to do what she thought was best.”

Really? A high school teacher didn’t know that students are allowed to dislike teachers? She didn’t know that she couldn’t force students to divulge confidential information, like passwords? She didn’t know that she couldn’t make a list of students she was going to punish because they criticized her?

Really? Because this is pretty basic civil rights stuff.

There’ll be an opportunity for Cruikshank to respond to the allegations, and I look forward to hearing any explanation for why someone who runs their classroom like the Nixon White House on Tuesday shouldn’t be flipping burgers by Thursday afternoon. And no, you can’t have my Facebook password to determine whether I want fries with that.

But a school employee overreacting to criticism on Facebook is hardly even news anymore. What is news–and what I want to highlight here–is that the school district actually recognized this was a legal (and ethical) problem and responded to correct it.

Superintendent Heather Fiorentino deserves praise for understanding the rights of the students in her care and acting quickly to protect those rights. While other districts have gone to court to argue for a right to stop teenagers from insulting their administrators online, Fiorentino has demonstrated what common sense tells us: schools have better things to worry about. Teenagers’ views on social media can disrupt a school only when the adults react like petulant bullies, and I wish every school had someone with Fiorentino’s wisdom in charge to combat this trend.