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Oct 20

Facebook Controversy in Georgia

Georgia Courts Rules Against Teacher Over Facebook Controversy

In August of 2009, the superintendent of Barrow County Schools in Georgia received an anonymous e-mail from a person claiming to be the parent of a student in Ashley Payne’s English class at Apalachee High School. 

According to an online blog downloaded from http://blogs.ajc.com/get-schooled-blog/2009/11/13/barrow-teacher-done-in-by-anonymous-e-mail-with-perfect-punctuation/, the following is the anonymous email from the parent:

To: Dr. Ron Saunders; Ken Greene

Sent: Aug. 27

Subject: Disappointed and worried about my daughter’s teacher

To whom it may concern,

My daughter is a pupil in one of Ms. Payne’s literature classes and friend of hers on the social networking site “Facebook.” Tonight, my daughter says to me casually, “Mom, I’m going to hang out with my bitches.” Shell shocked, I told her not to use profane language in my house ever again.

To make matters worse, my daughter laughs in my face, trying to comfort me by saying, “Mom, it’s ok! Ms. Payne calls her friends bitches! Then she comforts me more by proving to me via “Facebook” and sure enough, it is similar to what Ms. Payne had said in her status update, except hers exclaims: “Ashley Payne is at Bitch Bingo with her bitches.”

I’m standing over my daughter as she scrolls down the page thinking to myself, yes, Ms. Payne what an excellent way to teach my daughter the concept of alliteration!

Ms. Payne also has an unacceptable picture of herself smiling with alcohol for all her online friends to view. See attached.

I am repulsed by Ms. Payne’s profane use of language and how she conducts herself as an example to my teenage daughter. Her behavior is intolerable. I have a question to the Barrow County School System. Is it too hard for our educators to lack discipline online and offline?

I have chosen to remain anonymous regarding this matter for the sake of my daughter.

The superintendent talked with the Director of Human Resources and school principal about the email.  They decided the principal would talk with the teacher, and that they would turn the matter over to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, a separate government agency independent from the Georgia Department of Education which is charged by state law with handling the certification and licensure of teachers in the state (downloaded on 10/14/11 from http://www.gapsc.com/).

Exactly what was said during the meeting between the principal and the teacher was disputed.  The principal stated that upon learning of the complaint, the teacher voluntarily resigned.  The teacher argued that she was threatened with suspension unless she resigned.  She stated she was told that resignation was better than having the matter investigated by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.

The court case was brought under Georgia state law and argued that the teacher was denied a due process hearing, and that she was wrongfully terminated.  The school district countered that since she resigned, the district had no obligation to provide a due process hearing.

The teacher acknowledged that she had photos on her Facebook page from a trip she made to Europe and in several of those photos, she was holding beer or wine; however, she stated she was not doing anything illegal.  She also acknowledged that on one of her post, she stated that she was headed out to play “Crazy Bitch Bingo” at a local bar.  The page was subsequently taken down. 

Two weeks ago, an Atlanta judge ruled against the teacher stating that he had no authority to require the school district to provide a due process hearing since the teacher resigned. 

Payne’s lawyer, Richard Storrs, filed an amended complaint last week.  The new complaint states that the school district had no evidence that the original email was actually from a parent since it was anonymous. The suit claims the principal misrepresented the email during the meeting with the teacher.  The new complaint is seeking monetary damages. 

While this case revolves around Georgia state law, it emphasizes the importance of professional behavior and conduct on social networking sites.  It is very important for teachers, principals, and other professionals to be cognizant of what they put on their sites especially in light of the fact that there is little case law in this area.  Even when teachers and principals do not “befriend” parents and students, they have to remember that someone they have “befriended” could provide information and forward photos and comments. 

When confronted with these types of issues, it is important for principals to seek input from the superintendent as well as competent legal counsel before making disciplinary decisions.  It would also appear prudent to emphasize to teachers the importance of professional conduct while posting photos and comments on social networking sites.