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The Clash of Public and Personal Lives: Facebook and School Disciplinary Decisions

January 29, 2010

The last few days have seen a rash of stories where students and teachers have faced discipline because of Facebook postings.  First, Jaime Sarrio* at the Tennessean told the story of Taylor Cummings, an MLK student expelled for an angry Facebook post:

Taylor Cummings was a popular basketball star on the verge of graduating from one of Nashville’s most prestigious high schools until a post on the social networking site Facebook got him expelled.

After weeks butting heads with his coaches, Taylor, 17, logged on to the site from home Jan. 3. He typed his frustrations for the online world to see: “I’ma kill em all. I’ma bust this (expletive) up from the inside like nobody’s ever done before.”

Taylor said the threat wasn’t real. School officials said they can’t take any chances.

OK.  I can understand the principle (but maybe not the principals) involved.  Threats, especially ones as seemingly dangerous as this one, have to be taken seriously.  But, you do have to look at the context when you’re dealing with such harsh consequences.  It’s one thing to expel a student if we discover threats and are worried about the student carrying them out (although, if that’s truly the case, counseling and intervention, not just expulsion, need to be part of the equation).  On the other hand, if we have what seems to be a model student lose control for a moment and make a stupid decision, its highly questionable whether expulsion is the right remedy.  It doesn’t look as if anyone actually believes Taylor intended to carry out the threat.  If that’s the case, then the expulsion is really just punishing the words, not the intent.  Some sort of discipline is certainly appropriate, but not what happened.

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This morning, NPR carried the week-old story of a teacher in Brownsville, PA who was suspended because a friend posted a bachelorette party picture (including her, fully clothed, and a male stripper) on Facebook:

A Fayette County high school teacher was given a 30-day suspension after photos depicting her with a male stripper were posted to the Internet, but at least one school director feels the punishment was too harsh.

The photograph of the Brownsville Area School District teacher was posted to an online social networking site shortly before Christmas, according to three school directors who declined to identify the woman. It has since been removed, but the teacher remains on unpaid leave.

As other stories have mentioned, the ACLU is looking into the matter, and a Facebook group and two online petitions have been created to re-instate the teacher.  I think the ACLU makes a good point here (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review):

Brashear said other district employees who were present when the photos were snapped at a bachelorette party received disciplinary letters. Only one teacher was suspended because she is the only one visible in the photos. Should the district acquire similar photos from the party that depict other employees, Brashear said additional disciplinary action might be taken.

“Those pictures could surface, and then the superintendent would be required to act again,” Brashear said. “And there are many people out there who say they have them.”

Witold said the ACLU is investigating because the teacher, whom the district has declined to identify, did not make the photos public.

“I think what offends people is, what she was doing was perfectly legal, in private, involved no kids, and she didn’t even publicize it,” Witold said. “So why are they punishing her?”

That’s pretty mind-boggling to me.  The district is punishing the teachers differently simply because one got caught in a photo and the other didn’t?  This whole case stinks to me.  Granted, the teacher should have certainly been more circumspect (doesn’t anybody pay attention to all the commentary on Facebook’s privacy settings?), but that doesn’t change the fact that this event was done during private time, in her role as a private individual, away from school and children.  It makes me really nervous when we start punishing teachers (or students) for things going on in their personal lives.  How far should the school be able to reach?  It’s one thing to punish a student for making threats against teachers (with the caveat discussed above); it’s entirely another to punish non-illegal (or, even some might argue, totally acceptable) behavior undertaken by a teacher on his or her own time.  What’s next?  Punishing a teacher for taking part in a pro-marijuana legalization rally?  Punishing a teacher for pictures of himself doing shots posted on Facebook?

Regardless of where people stand on these issues, there’s a pretty easy moral lesson: Don’t post bad stuff on Facebook. Don’t post threats, or saucy pictures, or drunken photographs, or ridiculous rants if you’re at all worried about your career (academic or otherwise).  Privacy settings help, but you’re always going to have someone watching.  A “friend” can turn into an informant in a heartbeat.  Jeez, I realize I’m getting all 1984 here, but it’s the truth.  So long as we have people itching to bust folks for things in their personal lives of which they don’t approve, then there’s going to be a need to be careful.  Be like Winston (and remember how well it worked out for him):

For some reason the telescreen in the living-room was in an unusual position. Instead of being placed, as was normal, in the end wall, where it could command the whole room, it was in the longer wall, opposite the window. To one side of it there was a shallow alcove in which Winston was now sitting, and which, when the flats were built, had probably been intended to hold bookshelves. By sitting in the alcove, and keeping well back, Winston was able to remain outside the range of the telescreen, so far as sight went. He could be heard, of course, but so long as he stayed in his present position he could not be seen. It was partly the unusual geography of the room that had suggested to him the thing that he was now about to do.

*Alright.  I’m confused.  Jamie/Jaime, I’m sorry I keep spelling your name wrong.  Your byline is spelled different ways all the time.  Someone needs to get that standardized.

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