LAND O’ LAKES — The names are real.
The high school diploma they appear on is not.
When a young woman reached out to the Pasco County school district, wondering why a 2013 diploma from CHS Inc. High School wasn’t acceptable for enrolling in college classes. Superintendent Kurt Browning became concerned and turned the matter over to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.
The reason the superintendent sought the sheriff’s help: There is no CHS Inc. High School in Pasco County and Browning hadn’t signed the diploma, even though his signature and the signature of then school board Chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong appear on the document. Armstrong hadn’t signed it either.
“We don’t know if there are other ones floating around and other kids who think they have a high school diploma and don’t,” said Linda Cobbe, spokeswoman for the school district.
Sgt. Justin Ross with the sheriff’s economic crimes unit is trying to trace the diploma’s origins, but doesn’t anticipate anything big will be uncovered.
“I don’t think it’s going to be some organized diploma mill,” Ross said. “We’ll look into it and see where the investigation takes us.”
The diploma was awarded to Candice Re Phillips on July 27, 2013, “by order of the Pasco County District School Board,” The signatures of Browning and Armstrong appeared to have been copied from some other document, Cobbe said.
The signature of Nina G.S. Duffield also appears on the diploma and she is identified as the principal. Duffield was the registered agent for a home-school group called Country Home School Inc. in Zephyrhills, which was dissolved in 2009, according to Florida Department of State records.
Duffield could not be reached for comment.
Cobbe said she is unsure whether it was Phillips or someone else who brought the diploma to the district’s attention with a telephone call to the superintendent’s office about two weeks ago. Phillips was a Zephyrhills High student in the 2012-13 school year, but did not graduate, Cobbe said. Phillips could not be reached for comment.
Whether the sheriff’s office’s investigation leads to criminal charges would depend on the intent behind the diploma, Ross said. It could be there is nothing criminal.
“In our line of business, nothing ceases to amaze us,” Ross said. “Fake checks, fake money, fake diplomas. It’s not surprising to us. We’ve investigated cases before, not necessarily fake diplomas, but people misrepresenting their education status.”