Penalty for Facebook teacher maligning of student too light

BRADENTON HERALD EDITORIALJuly 6, 2012 

Once again, the Manatee County school district has become ensnared in offensive Facebook postings by teachers, but this new case crosses ethical boundaries by leaps and bounds.

In describing a student as someone who "may be the evolutionary link between orangutans and humans" on Facebook, the Rogers Garden Elementary School music teacher violated the Code of Ethics provision that requires instructors to a "make reasonable effort to protect the student from conditions ... harmful to the student's mental and physical safety" and avoid "intentionally exposing a student to embarrassment or disparagement." The teacher, Lauren Orban, identified the student with initials that her school colleagues understood in comments linked to the initial posting, with one stating: "This made me laugh out loud. Haha." The conversation only ceased when school registrar discovered the posts and added her own comment: "What the hell is that suppose to mean?"

The Facebook postings were deleted after the student's parents learned of the mocking comments. Why would teachers disparage any student in this manner? The student's family is rightfully upset -- at both the comments and the resulting discipline. Rogers Garden Principal Ann Broomes issued verbal reprimands to the teachers, but those are not documented into personnel files.

The school district and board have driven down this road before and run into a ditch over an attempt to fire a teacher for improper Facebook postings. Insisting that teacher violated the district's Code of Ethics and should be fired, administrators lost in court when a judge ruled his behavior inappropriate but not just cause for termination. His suspension was upheld, however.

The teacher's attorney in that 18-month case, which finally ended in February, argued the district did not have a written policy that specifically addressed Facebook conduct. The district countered that the Code of Ethics covered social media, and the teacher should not have "friended" dozens of students and posted suggestive images and acronyms for profane words.

In this latest case, Superintendent Tim McGonegal stated the district cannot "go back and change the discipline," though only a scolding over such egregious behavior appears too generous. He did forward this new case to the Florida Department of Education's Office of Professional Practices for review. If that doesn't result in sterner action, then an injustice will have occurred.

The student's mother told the Herald that they have hired an attorney to argue for more substantial discipline for all eight teachers involved in the Facebook exchange. As School Board Chair Harry Kinnan stated in the Herald's July 4 report on this case, suspension would have been appropriate as "harmful and hurtful" comments about students cannot be tolerated.

Teachers should not escape the repercussions of shameless online behavior and should be held to the highest professional standards. With the potential for lifelong influence on students, teachers should be building their self-esteem, not tearing it down.

The district should expedite negotiations with the Manatee Education Association, the teachers union, over a social media policy -- with clear provisions on both unacceptable conduct and discipline, thereby providing administrators with clear instructions on penalties appropriate for each offense.

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