BRADENTON — A local teachers’ union is fighting a Manatee County School District policy proposal that would govern how teachers and other employees can use Facebook and other online social networks.
School board members were slated to vote on the controversial matter Monday night, but it was pulled from the board meeting agenda after the Manatee Education Association filed a complaint with the state claiming the new rules violate a teachers’ right to privacy and speech.
The union is asking the Division of Administrative Hearings’ judicial board to rule against the proposed policy which, if approved, prohibits teachers from posting pictures or comments that cast the district, teachers or students in a negative light. It also requires teachers to get written permission from parents if they want to communicate with students on those websites, or by personal e-mail. It comes after a local middle school teacher last year posted on his Facebook page that he hated his students and his job. When district leaders found out, they suspended him for five days.
“This policy says the district, if they find negative comments on your personal Facebook, that you could be disciplined whether you’re communicating with students or not. I think that’s going a little far,” said Bruce Proud, business agent for the Manatee County Education Association. “How do they determine what’s disagreeable to them or offensive to them? This policy gives them the determination of whether they don’t like it, and they can discipline you for it.”
School board attorney John Bowen Monday defended the policy he drafted saying it contained valid rules.
“It’s really doesn’t change anything,” he said. “They seem to be upset we’re trying to govern their private communications and we’re not doing anything different, we’re just reminding them that they are subject to the code of ethics and principals of the teaching profession which govern them anyway.”
Bowen said the district will wait to see what the state determines before voting on the proposed policy.
A hearing is set Nov. 19.
Christine Sensenig, a Sarasota-based labor and employment attorney, said she think the proposed policy will draw the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union because Florida residents have a constitutional right to privacy.
“You’re looking at the whole notion of telling people what they can’t do on their private time,” she said. “Because they’re public sector employees and not private sector employees, they’re treated differently. Privately sector employers can routinely restrict the right of their employees to express opinions about the company, the company’s clients and the way the company does business.”
Neither Sarasota, Pinellas nor Hillsborough school districts have a specific policy such as the one Manatee school officials are considering. Manatee, like many districts across the state, have social networking systems blocked from their computer systems.
A similar policy was passed in the Santa Rosa School District but school leaders there had to rescind it, said Santa Rosa Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick. The local teachers union threatened to sue, saying it violated teacher privacy rights.
Lee County Public Schools have guidelines for the use of social networking for employees, but no specific policy.
Meanwhile, in related matters Monday, the school board suspended without pay and granted an administrative hearing to a Charles Willis, a Braden River High School drama teacher accused of inappropriate behavior and gross insubordination.
Willis, 43 reportedly posted inappropriate student-viewed images, photos and comments on social networking sites including his Facebook page and took a group of female students on an unauthorized trip to New York. Willis, who has worked in the district since 1998, had been on paid administrative leave from his position as a teacher for violating multiple district rules and the state code of ethics for teachers, according to a district complaint.
Willis, who did not attend Monday’s meeting, has denied the allegations.
He is also being investigated by the State Attorney’s Office following a Sept. 22 arrest on a child abuse charge. He reportedly head-butted his 12-year-old son at their home. The boy was not seriously injured. Willis has called the incident a misunderstanding and an accident.
In other matters Monday, the board:
n Fired Christopher Lewers, a maintenance worker, who was arrested on a careless driving charge after he flipped a $60,000 district vehicle and destroyed it, according to a district administrative complaint. He has also received verbal warnings for excessive absences and lateness, according to an administrative complaint.
n Granted an administrative hearing to Joyce Taylor, a Lee Middle School cafeteria worker, who faces termination for not reporting a possible child abuse case to an abuse hotline as district policy requires, according to another administrative complaint.
n Proclaimed October as National Principal’s Month and as Crime Stoppers Recognition Month.