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Classroom controversy at a Rio Rancho high school

CORRECTION: Katrina Guarascio’s name was spelled wrong in an earlier version of this story.

What seemed at first to be an innocuous creative writing assignment sparked a controversy at a Rio Rancho high school that ultimately cost Katrina Guarascio her job, the former English teacher said Tuesday.

Katrina Guarascio resigned from her job teaching English and creative writing at V. Sue Cleveland High School after a controversy in which a student complained about a story that another student wrote in her class this fall. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Katrina Guarascio resigned from her job teaching English and creative writing at V. Sue Cleveland High School after a controversy in which a student complained about a story that another student wrote in her class this fall. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

In response to the assignment, one student wrote an essay about Jesus distributing marijuana. Another student complained to her parents about it.

Guarascio, an English teacher at V. Sue Cleveland High School, ended up being put on paid leave for three weeks, and then later asked to change her creative writing class or resign – which on Dec. 3 she did.

The district contends it was addressing what it considered unprofessional behavior on her part, not the writing assignment or student’s essay.

In early October, Guarascio asked students in her creative writing class to retell a classic tale. That’s when one of Guarascio’s students refashioned the biblical story in which Jesus gives loaves of bread and fish to the poor – except in the student’s story, Jesus gave marijuana to the sick.

The story offended another student when she was asked to read it as part of a peer review, meaning students read and critique each other’s work. The offended student told her parents, who in turn complained to the school’s administration.

Guarascio was then put on leave for three weeks while the administration interviewed students about her classroom behavior. On Nov. 5, the school asked Guarascio to come back, she said.

Guarascio said it was not made clear to her why she was put on leave, which she said was frustrating. She said she was reprimanded for having students read each others’ work – peer review is a writing and editing process that is part of the class – and for having former students who were still at Cleveland as Facebook friends.

The district said the student’s story was not the administrators’ primary concern.

“We would note that the primary concerns raised with Ms. Guarascio were not focused on the written product produced by students but on other issues, including the fact that students were required to read other students’ essays and comment on content they found objectionable,” read a statement issued by the district.

Superintendent Sue Cleveland, for whom the school is named, said Tuesday that the topic of peer review has been a controversial one in Rio Rancho. She said some parents don’t like the idea that other students will read their children’s work, while other parents like peer review.

Cleveland said the issue has been raised in the courts before and it’s important that if teachers use peer review they let students opt out.

But Guarascio said her students were never forced to read each other’s work and they could always choose whether to do so.

Guarascio also said she sent a course description for her creative writing class home with students to show their parents. In it, she said she would not censor their creative writing in the elective class and that students would be asked to read each others’ work. She provided the 21-page description to the Journal on Tuesday.

After she came back to the school, administrators asked Guarascio not talk to students about why she was gone for three weeks, she said.

“There were a lot of rumors that were untrue,” said Alicia Borillo, a 17-year-old senior at Cleveland. Many of the rumors were not very nice and students would ask her why she had been gone, Borillo said.

After initially refusing, Guarascio did tell students why she’d been gone but did so without identifying the student who complained, she said.

“I didn’t want my reputation to be jaded,” Guarascio said.

On the day before Thanksgiving, administrators told Guarascio she could either resign or write a plan describing how she would become more professional in the classroom, she said. She said she doesn’t understand how she had not acted professionally.

“Ms. Guarascio chose to resign her position rather than follow the district’s direction that classes be administered in a professional manner and that all persons on a school campus behave appropriately,” the district’s statement said.

“Any suggestion that the teacher was forced to resign because of students’ exercise of free speech rights is simply not true.”

Guarascio is popular with many students and is known for organizing poetry readings in the community.

On Tuesday, the day after KOAT-TV ran a piece on Guarascio’s resignation, her social media pages erupted with support.

Heather MacNeil, whose son Wil had Guarascio in his pre-Advanced Placement English class, said she is upset over the way Guarascio was treated.

MacNeil said her son is smart but had never shown much interest in writing until he took Guarascio’s class. But now his class has been taught by a string of substitutes, MacNeil said.

“Now over 100 kids are affected by this, whereas only one was offended by the piece of writing,” she said.

Cleveland said she understands Guarascio’s departure was very upsetting for some parents and teachers.

“I do understand there were parents of students who liked her very much, and I think her departure is a very sad thing for them,” Cleveland said. She also said the district didn’t want to hurt Guarascio.

Borillo, who was in Guarascio’s classes during her sophomore and junior years, said she encouraged them to express themselves.

“She taught her students to express themselves and how to speak up even when no one was listening,” Borillo said. “She’s important to a lot of people and what happened was really unfair.”

Guarascio said she plans to seek a teaching job in another district.