I was going to wait until Monday to post this column but I am putting the piece up now as I think this story deserves a healthy dose of sunshine. To grasp this entire bizarre story, please read my two earlier related posts, especially the one right below on the anonymous e-mail that set this whole tragicomedy in motion.
After her three-week trip to Europe this summer, Barrow County teacher Ashley Payne posted 700 photos to Facebook. Ten of those photos showed her in pubs and beer gardens.
Payne’s Facebook page is set to a high privacy level and is accessible only to friends to whom she has granted access. Recognizing her position as a role model, Payne says she has never allowed access to students or parents at Apalachee High School, where she taught.
Believing that only her adult friends could see her postings, Payne also felt comfortable posting a brief comment on Aug. 26 announcing that she was headed out to play “Crazy Bitch Bingo,” a popular game played weekly at a Midtown restaurant.
But by the next morning, someone had sent an anonymous e-mail to the Barrow superintendent. The e-mailer claimed to be a parent whose daughter had access to Payne’s Facebook page. The daughter had allegedly seen both the note about bingo and “unacceptable photos” of Payne “smiling with alcohol for all her online friends to view.”
“Her behavior is intolerable,” wrote the e-mailer.
Less than two hours later, Payne was sitting in the assistant principal’s office, where she was pressured to resign. According to Barrow spokeswoman Lisa Leighton, the incident demonstrates the high standard of conduct to which school employees are held.
Initially, the school system told me that it would not reveal the name of the mother who sent the e-mail to protect her privacy. But it turns out that Barrow has no idea who sent the e-mail or whether the parent or daughter even exist.
The e-mail itself reads as though it was written by another teacher rather than by a parent.
When summoned into the meeting with principal David McGee and assistant principal Dorann Mansberger, Payne acknowledged the posting of vacation photos and her use of the word “bitch.” But she pointed out that she had never allowed students or parents access to her Facebook page.
Payne is now suing to get her job back.
According to court documents filed by the district in response to the lawsuit, “Mr. McGee told Plaintiff that she would be suspended and her conduct reported to the Professional Standards Committee. Plaintiff asked if she could resign.”
At that point, however, the stories diverge. McGee says that Payne volunteered to resign. Payne says she was coerced.
“There was no mention of a warning,” Payne said. “No ‘Could you please take these things down?’ I was told, ‘We are going to have to suspend you and your only other option is to resign.’”
“At no time did I tell her she had to resign,” countered McGee in a statement released by Barrow officials. In that statement, McGee concedes that he presented Payne with some dire scenarios:
“She asked about options and I told her she always had the option of resigning. I told her that I had no idea what the Professional Standards Commission (PSC) would do. I told her I had seen suspensions, fines and loss of teaching certificates.”
If such a case had indeed been forwarded to the standards commission — an anonymous e-mail, with no proof that a child was actually involved, complaining about photos of American tourists sitting in beer gardens and the use of the word “bitch” — it should have been laughed off as groundless.
The fact that instead a school system reacted so recklessly and quickly — with no apparent skepticism whatsoever — finally helps me understand how so many people fall for those Nigerian e-mail scams.
In several conversations with the Barrow spokeswoman, I was told that the critical issue wasn’t the vacation photos or Payne’s use of an expletive. Instead, it was the “fact” that she had given a student inappropriate access to her personal Facebook account.
A “fact” for which there is no evidence whatsoever.
This is the Internet folks. The “concerned parent” could have been anybody: an old boyfriend, a jealous teacher, a nutcase. Barrow administrators didn’t know anything about the sender of the poison e-mail.
But they did know Payne.
A 2007 University of Georgia honors graduate, Payne had taught at the high school for two years. She seemed to do fine; her students posted higher End of Course Test scores than the county average. (McGee seems to agree, writing: “Ashley has completed two satisfactory years at Apalachee High School.”)
A confused Payne now wonders whether she had unknowingly crossed some line with her boss, noting that she had met with McGee a week earlier to lament that he had never observed her class. But she did not think that conversation might contribute to the loss of her job.
According to Leighton, the Barrow spokeswoman, the county had recently unearthed a policy for teachers dating back to 1938. Those antiquated rules required that unmarried female teachers live with families and never be seen outside after dark. Seen from the perspective of 70 years later, those rules seem preposterous, Leighton said.
But it doesn’t take the perspective of 70 years or even 70 seconds to recognize that the policy that entrapped Payne is ludicrous, dangerous and unfair.