Letter-writer slams principals drinking, shopping tweets

RODRIGUEZHad the person’s intent been different, it wouldn’t have bothered Perla Rodriguez that someone sifted through hundreds of her Twitter messages.

If the individual had contacted her directly with concerns over her social media habits, the principal of Echo Shaw Elementary School would have been able to explain that she had no idea her Twitter account was public, and could have immediately switched it to private.

Instead, the person sent an anonymous letter to the Forest Grove School District in early June, complaining of several tweets and photos disseminated by Rodriguez through Twitter, a micro-blogging platform, and Instagram, an online photo-sharing medium.

“Someone as intelligent as Ms. Rodriguez should know better than to post crass, vulgar and violent comments ... for anyone to read with access to the Internet,” wrote the letter-sender, who also insisted Rodriguez’s tweets demonstrated “incredibly poor judgment.”

It’s not the first time Rodriguez’s personal life has caused her public embarrassment. In 2011 she was investigated for possible misconduct by the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission (TSPC) after she was twice arrested for driving under the influence of intoxicants.

In the current dust-up, she insists that the tweets in question, which number about 10, represent “a small sliver, maybe 2 percent” of approximately 700 she’s sent out since establishing a Twitter account in 2010. “The vast majority are communications between me and my daughter,” Rodriguez, a single mother who lives in Forest Grove, said last week. “They’re about family, work, politics” — and boxing.

Rodriguez, 41, who earlier this year was named 2013’s Distinguished Latino Educator by the Oregon Association of Latino Administrators, has judged professional boxing matches in Oregon for the past nine years. One of the tweets she was criticized for, in which she used a four-letter word, expressed her excitement over news that a long-anticipated fight would be coming to the state.

Though Rodriguez acknowledges the cited tweets were real and potentially provocative out of context — she tweeted a photo of a dog wearing a hat bearing a slang version of a racial slur, posed with friends while drinking shots and spoke of shopping at Barnes & Noble using the district’s credit card — the whole kerfuffle took her by surprise.

“I literally did not know my Twitter was public until I heard about the letter,” said Rodriguez, who met with her supervisor, Assistant Superintendent John O’Neill, about the matter two weeks ago. Although she says he did not direct her to do so, Rodriguez has since turned her Twitter settings to private.

O’Neill said Monday there are school board policies in place that govern the use of social media by students and staff. But sometimes, he added, officials “must balance district expectations with First Amendment rights, and we look to our legal counsel for guidance.”

He confirmed the district had sought counsel from the Hungerford Law Firm in Oregon City about Rodriguez, but neither O’Neill nor Superintendent Yvonne Curtis would comment specifically about the case.

Personal account

Whether a line exists between public and private behavior — and where it is, exactly — remains unclear to some, including Rodriguez.

“Looking back, there are things that, as a principal, I probably could have done without tweeting,” she said. “But it’s not my school’s website — it’s my personal account.”

A Forest Grove School Board policy says only that staff members should use social network sites “judiciously by not posting confidential information about students, staff or district business” and that they ought to “treat fellow employees, students and the public with respect while posting.”

Rodriguez said Monday she did not believe she violated that policy. “I’ve never tweeted anything with negative or disrespectful intentions,” she said.

The anonymous letter writer forwarded screen shots of the principal’s social media accounts to the school district, challenging Business Manager Mike Schofield to “research” the Barnes & Noble purchase and “determine if it is work-related. If not, I would expect the incident to be treated as theft and Rodriguez terminated immediately.

“Perception is reality,” the

letter writer added.

Rodriguez said there was more to the story about the bookstore trip. “I was with my mom and my daughter, on my own time, and I was looking for Title I school and parent outreach materials for Cornelius Elementary,” she said, adding that since Cornelius Principal Dave Dorman announced his coming retirement, she had been doubling up duties at both schools. “Anyone who just looked at the receipt would be able to see that.”

Schofield said Monday the purchases had been made in May and that he was waiting for the credit card statement to be processed so he could examine the receipt. “I will look at it,” he said.

The dog-in-hat tweet started as a joke by her sons — who dressed the family dog up in a fedora, a cowboy hat and a bandana at home one afternoon — that took on a life of its own.

“There were probably 10 pictures they sent me, each with the dog in a different hat,” Rodriguez explained. “Each one was sillier than the last.” She tweeted a photo of the pooch wearing one of her son’s hats, emblazoned with the word “Nigga” and the caption, “Boys are bored ... doggie photo shoot.”

“I don’t own that hat; he had gotten it as a gift,” said Rodriguez. “He’s a young man of color, and to him, that term means something very different. Honestly, it didn’t even register with me.”

As for the drinking tweets, she said, one photo showed her taking a shot “with one of my best friends from elementary school — she had just gotten a vice-principal job in eastern Oregon, and we were recognizing her accomplishment.”

The other one was of Rodriguez with a teacher at her school. “It was her birthday, and we were celebrating, period,” she said. “I don’t sit around and take shots. This was not just some random ‘girls gone wild’ stuff.”

Rodriguez said her DUII arrests in 2005 and 2010 were “personal matters I addressed on my personal time.” She completed a private alcohol diversion program, including private one-on-one counseling, in 2011.

But some in the community, including Hillsboro resident Zack Gallinger-Long, view drinking and driving — whether on or off the district clock — as grounds for termination. He posted on Facebook Saturday that he attended a school board candidates’ forum in Forest Grove before the May 21 election and “raised serious concerns” about Rodriguez.

In light of her DUII troubles and the controversy over her use of social media, Rodriguez “needs to go,” said Gallinger-Long.

“I hold teachers, doctors and clergy members all at a higher level of expectation,” said the father of two, whose nephew attends Echo Shaw Elementary. “They set the example for children in our community. They’re people children look up to.”

It’s irrelevant to Gallinger-Long that Rodriguez was unaware her Twitter account was public. “How you conduct yourself in public, or with your family, is what matters,” he said. “(The district) should hire for character, not just for credentials.”

In January 2011, one month after Rodriguez’s second arrest, Curtis asked the Oregon TSPC to investigate whether the principal had violated professional standards set by the state. The commission found she had not.

Rodriguez’s educator’s license was renewed by the TSPC June 17 and is good through December 2018.

‘A lot of trouble’

For her part, Rodriguez is circumspect about the origin of the letter and its intention.

“I don’t know who did this, and I’m not going to spend any energy trying to find out,” Rodriguez said last week while waiting for a flight back to Oregon from San Francisco, where she had participated in an educational conference on project-based learning. “Someone obviously went to a lot of trouble to make me look bad.”

The editor of the Forest Grove Leader, which broke the story in its June 19 edition, would not say whether the letter writer went beyond simply contacting the school board and actually forwarded the letter (or a tip about it) to the Leader.

“I am going to have to decline to be interviewed,” Samantha Swindler told the News-Times.

Rodriguez, who became principal of Echo Shaw Elementary School in 2012 after nine years as principal of Cornelius Elementary, has been lauded for her work to boost bilingual education in the local school district. She plans to begin a pre-kindergarten program at Echo Shaw this fall and is working to open a food pantry there as well.

She has widespread support from parents at her school and the respect of Cornelius Principal Dave Dorman, who’s retiring at the end of this month.

“I stand in strong support of Perla — she is truly a gifted and committed leader and a strong role model for our students,” said Dorman, adding that he was speaking as an individual and not as a district employee. “It’s important to put these things into context.”

Whether a public school administrator should be held to a higher standard than other less visible community members is something Rodriguez has spent time considering since she became aware of the complaint.

“I like social media because I can stay current with what’s happening in the lives of my family and friends,” she said, adding that although she’s no longer in her 20s, “I am in a generation where (the use of social media) is normalized.”

Online photos, tweets, posts and comments “look different to one generation than to another,” she said.

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