Facebook case: Deposition reveals Barrow didn’t know e-mail source

Many of you have been asking me about the fate of Ashley Payne, the Barrow County high school teacher who lost her job over her Facebook page and whose experience sparked a national debate about Internet privacy, anonymous e-mails and teacher rights.

One of the Facebook photos that a "parent" complained about in an anonymous e-mail

One of the Facebook photos that a "parent" complained about in an anonymous e-mail

The legal case is proceeding. Ashley Payne’s lawyer just deposed the principal and assistant principal. She is fighting to get her job back.

I asked attorney Richard Storrs if Barrow ever traced the source of the incriminating e-mail that led to Payne being called in by her principal in August and told to consider resigning rather than face losing her teaching license. Under that pressure, the 23-year-old UGA honors graduate says she felt she had no recourse but to resign – a mistake according to veteran teachers.

Here is what Storrs told me this week:

“We took depositions of the principal and assistant principal last week. The principal basically admitted to the thrust of our case–that he suggested resignation to Ashley, that he failed to advise her fully on what was happening, and that they had no idea where the email came from, or whether or not it was from an actual parent.”

This confirms my original conviction that the anonymous e-mailer who protested Payne’s Facebook photos of drinking wine and beer in Europe and her status update of playing “bitch bingo” was an adult friend or fellow teacher with a grudge against her rather than an outraged parent with a legitimate beef.

The system acted on the anonymous e-mail – and acted within two hours of reading it. The Facebook photos were standard tourist shots in European beer gardens and cafes and “bitch bingo” is a popular game played at an Atlanta bar/restaurant. There was nothing offensive about either, and there was no other evidence that Payne had permitted students to view her Facebook page.

To read background on this bizarre case, please see my earlier blogs by going to the Facebook listing in the categories index on right side of the page.

This entire episode hinges on the oddly written and unsigned e-mail, which charged that Payne was allowing students access to her Facebook page. Payne said that was impossible since she had tight privacy settings and had never “friended” a student.

When I obtained a copy of the outraged e-mail that purported to be from a parent, I immediately felt that it was a fraud and that another teacher had written it. (I explain why in earlier blogs, but it was partly the stilted language and weird references. The e-mail is in the blogs.)

In my interviews with Barrow, I was stunned to find out that the system never confirmed that the e-mail – which came from a dummy e-mail address – was really from a parent. Barrow had no idea who sent it when I interviewed the communications director, yet district officials were willing to accept its allegations as fact.

When I reported that information in the AJC, it set off a national firestorm of protest, as well it should. I think teachers are entitled to have Facebook pages, and I think school systems — or any employers — are on shaky grounds responding this quickly and aggressively to an anonymous e-mail without a shred of confirming evidence. I think Payne became a national story because so many people have Facebook pages, especially younger workers, and they saw great injustice in this case. (A small number of folks don’t agree, saying teachers should not post photos of themselves ever with alcohol and there is no real privacy on Facebook.)

The school district’s failure to document that the e-mail was authentic didn’t make any sense to me because Barrow initially told me that Payne’s main offense was sharing her Facebook page with a student. Yet, they never confirmed that a student ever saw the page, so why did they act so quickly on this matter?

I also talked to the head of the Professional Standards Commission, the state’s governing body over teacher conduct. He told me his office would not have responded to an anonymous e-mail, even though Payne’s boss told her that it was likely the PSC would strip her of her teaching license if the complaint came before it. The principal then suggested to Payne that resignation was a safer option for her, according to a statement provided to me by Barrow County schools.

I hope to see a copy of the recent depositions and will report back to you. I will also seek updated comment from Barrow County on this case and share that with you. I know the county is reeling from all the attention – which, unfortunately, included death threats to the principal. Police are investigating the threats, which cross a line and are insane.

But I think the county brought this unwanted and unsavory attention on itself by its actions in this case. I hope it is resolved soon for everyone’s sake, but particularly Payne who is without a job in a profession she loves and hopes to work in for many years to come.

93 comments Add your comment

Lee

January 22nd, 2010
7:23 am

I don’t think it matters as to the source of the email. Many companies have a “hotline” that allows anyone to lodge a complaint and most allow anonymity if the complaintant so desires.

The bottom line is that this principal clearly overreacted and coerced this young lady to resign. I hope she gets everything $$$ that she deserves.

Lee

January 22nd, 2010
7:26 am

Er….complainant. Note to self, drink coffee, then post.

Teach

January 22nd, 2010
7:30 am

Maureen,
Thank you for staying on this topic. Young people in all professions can easily be intimidated by superiors and make hasty decisions. That “count to 10″ rule is so important when the end result of the quick decision is life changing. Having patience, knowing your rights, seeking advice are all important tools that more seasoned adults would do well to “teach” our young adults before they go out into the world to make their way. Still challenging to know how to react under bullying pressure but the more knowledge they have the more confident they will be to withstand the pressure.

RJ

January 22nd, 2010
8:06 am

I am glad to hear that this case is moving forward. I’m not a younger teacher, but I have a facebook account as do most of my friends. This was ridiculous!

irisheyes

January 22nd, 2010
8:16 am

Thanks for the update. From reading all of this, I do think some people should lose their jobs. If the principal took this action on his own, then he needs to be let go, and if it came from the central office, the people responsible there need to be fired. I have a feeling that this is going to cost Barrow a lot of money, and the school board needs to find out who’s responsible for bullying this teacher out of her job.

Reality Check

January 22nd, 2010
8:16 am

I’m sure all of you have heard, and probably used the term……”CYA”. That’s what this Yellow-Bellied Principal was doing…..this person should have stood up for his teacher instead of hanging her out to dry. I hope she’s successful in her pursuit of returning to her job……the principal, well….I hope he gets what he deserves. I know…..a little vindictive perhaps but……

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Hanako, Maureen Downey. Maureen Downey said: Update on teacher Facebook case. Deposition shows Barrow did not know who sent e-mail that started the furor. http://bit.ly/7hgQ5B [...]

mitzymy

January 22nd, 2010
8:21 am

Times have changed and parents need to realize that. Teachers of today are younger, single, and better looking than they were 40 years ago, and they mingle. The teacher in this story should have retained an attorney before she resigned. Now they are free to insert anything they want into her records and ruin her career.

GeoffDawg

January 22nd, 2010
8:25 am

This whole thing is outrageous. If teachers aren’t allowed to drink beer and wine in exotic locales, I never would’ve gotten one to marry me.

Shannon, M.Div.

January 22nd, 2010
8:28 am

She’s got an excellent case, and I hope she wins both reinstatement and some punitive damages. How embarrassing for that system, to be so clearly in the wrong and yet still fighting to be the morality police.

huh?

January 22nd, 2010
8:29 am

Today’s teachers are younger??? Better looking? I suppose schools 40 years ago were filled with old maids…

Tony

January 22nd, 2010
8:30 am

Barrow county acted in a capricious and arbitrary manner regarding the issues surrounding this situation and they must be held to account. It is disappointing that people in positions of authority are so quick to pass judgement without gathering all the facts.

Balderdash

January 22nd, 2010
8:31 am

Without fail, I discard any communication – written or otherwise – that comes to me anonymously.

Balderdash

January 22nd, 2010
8:33 am

Yes, I realize the irony that my post is made anonymously.

Paula

January 22nd, 2010
8:38 am

Perhaps it was the principal that set her up?

ga

January 22nd, 2010
8:51 am

seems to me this case has gotten curiouser and curiouser with all the attention..

Hairy Banana Reid

January 22nd, 2010
9:01 am

Throw the book at them! (pun intended)

That Guy

January 22nd, 2010
9:09 am

Once again, just another instance where “Educators”, (and I use that term loosely), have failed miserably in applying logic and common sense to a perceived problem. Where was the due diligence from the Administrators in this case?

Idiotic decisions like this makes one wonder how “school administrators’ ended up in their current positions. Here’s a WAG…..probably drinking and carousing with their peers and/or supervisors.

We’ll keep griping and complaining about our education system, yet keep electing the same codgers to our school boards that force their wills on our education system. Until systems are able to exhibit some sort of independence from that of the “company line”, things will continue to get worse.

Kelleysrightnow

January 22nd, 2010
9:17 am

As usual this comes down to common sense. Things are so out of control that everyone is worried about what will happen rather than dealing with a situation upfront. Schools preach No Tolerance, yet we have to accept everything except God in the schools. Stop the world, I think I want to get off now.

Tonya

January 22nd, 2010
9:19 am

That Guy:

ITA. As an example, Gwinnett County schools just released a list of new principals…why was the last listed the former HR Director?

Elizabeth

January 22nd, 2010
9:25 am

This is why teachers with 4 years of experience in a system in this state have “Fair Dismissal” Note: I did NOT, NOT, NOT say “Tenure:”. There was a hidden agenda from someone in power to get rid of this teacher. When my mother taught in Georgia school years ago she was once nonrenewed because the principal’s wife, with a lower degree and no experience, wanted her job. My mother had no recourse. Now teachers with fair dismissal rights have the right to a hearing and to have documentationof the evidence presented against them.They should have already had numerous warnings and letters documenting what they needed to correct and givingthem time to correct the deficiencies. It does not mean theycan’t be fired if the documentationis upheld as valid. ( This is the difference betrween tenure and fair dismissal.). It also saved me when I was accused by a student of inappropriate behavior. The student was mad because he failed my class; the investigation proved this.
Without fair dismissal rights, I would have had my career ruined by a lying studemt. Students know they can cause trouble and often do. So do parents and administrators who have hidden agendas.

My computer is giving me trouble again, so I will stop rahter than have more typos.

DeKalb Conservative

January 22nd, 2010
9:26 am

I’m glad this story hasn’t disappeared. What I don’t understand is where is the problem? Let’s go with the absolute worst case scenario this was from a parent (doesn’t look likely, but let’s humor that). My point, so who cares? Let’s then say that this image was plastered on the wall in every hall of the school. What’s the fallout?

Are kids going to start sneaking into their parent’s liquor cabinet because Ms Payne likes to drink?
Doubtful…

Are kids going to start playing bingo, ie potential gambling because Ms Payne likes to play bitch bingo?

Grow up Barrow. Be careful what you ask for in teachers. This is a school system that seems ripe for a hyphenated-American (gay-American, Jewish-American, Muslim-American) to become a teacher in this county and really shake things up.

Money Talks

January 22nd, 2010
9:30 am

She has a pretty good attorney and a solid case. She should be able to score some big dollars from this incompetent school board, which is the only lesson they will understand. Hopefully, in the next election, these morons will be voted out for wasting time and money on needless “issues.”

cmonnow

January 22nd, 2010
9:30 am

So absurd. She wasn’t doing anything illegal or immoral. Evidently he doesn’t enjoy a beer with pizza or a football game, so he thinks she shouldn’t either.

DeKalb Conservative

January 22nd, 2010
9:31 am

I think this is a fair question to ask. Do they teach evolution in Barrow County, or is that still considered a radical and unproven theory?

From everything I’ve heard about this county this sounds like a place that doesn’t pay much attention to sex education and then wonders why there are a bunch of 16 and 17 year olds shopping for maternity clothes to wear to Sunday mass.

Unjustified Major Payne

January 22nd, 2010
9:31 am

Thanks M.D., while I’m a conservative S. Baptist here in the biblebelt, I fully support this young lady and would hardly term the evidence I’ve seen as racey or inappropriate. It certainly makes a persons mind wander about whether there are other issues not brought out. I probably shouldn’t even think that way and give her benefit of doubt. But, as I said, from what I’ve heard so far I think Ms. Payne has been treated poorly. Good luck young lady. You are in our prayers.

The Dean

January 22nd, 2010
9:35 am

Furthermore, it is going to be hard for this principal to hire teachers I would imagine. As a teacher, I want to work for a principal that is going to defend me, not prosecute me.

DeKalb Conservative

January 22nd, 2010
9:37 am

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the principal of this school got busted for a DUI in the near future?

GADawgDoo

January 22nd, 2010
9:42 am

This whole SpaceBook and MyFace thing has gotten to be a self promotion vehicle with some serious consequences. The most facinating aspect of this is that a principal or his minions will act based on anonymous phone calls anywhere. This is not unique to Barrow county. The teacher is always the first to be thrown under the bus. I teach and they have tried to throw me under it for little or no cause.

Kevin

January 22nd, 2010
9:45 am

It would not surprise me if it turns out to be the principal who wanted Payne gone. Anyone experienced in a position of authority should know there are two sides to every story and nothing should be judged or decided until you have a chance to investigate BOTH sides. When it comes to the internet, nothing is ever as it seems. From reading both sides here I will judge. Either the principal is VERY naive with the internet or has a grudge against Ms. Payne.

Can anyone check to see if the principal is still waiting on the $11million to deposit into his account from the relative of a missing Ethiopian?

Pity

January 22nd, 2010
9:45 am

There was a time when some teachers should’ve gotten clearance from AA to return to their jobs, but they were not fired or bullied into resigning. I can even remember when there were rumors of teachers “going with” students, but, again, they weren’t fired. I, too, hope that Ms. Payne gets enough money to sit at home for a few years. Maybe this will teach a lesson to so-called administrators about being so gung-ho to keep teachers in line without hard evidence.

teacher

January 22nd, 2010
9:46 am

We are such a culture of extremes. I worked with a teacher who was an exotic dancer in a local establishment. No one said a thing. I have worked in two systems where teachers partied with kids and it was a pretty well-known fact. I was always surprised, but that was standard.
Then, the facebook issue arises. Why parents think that teachers are not adults who can have a drink is odd. Also, it is an invasion of privacy when the system dictates what its employees can and can’t do in the privacy of their own homes.
What needs to happen is that parents assume the responsibility of raising their kids, teaching that there is no such thing as a role model and teaching them responsible benaviors. It is interesting that so many parents are their childrens’ friends, yet hold the teachers to a different standard.

minus

January 22nd, 2010
9:50 am

As an educator, my question is why am I held to a higher standard than parents are themselves? Are you no longer allowed to have a glass of wine once you have a child? Can your child be taken away if you have a photo or two of you with alcohol in them? What about cussing? Is there someone out there to punish parents for using inappropriate language within earshot of their child? I appreciate that as an educator I am a role model for my students. In fact, I’m proud to be a positive example in the lives of my students. I just think it’s important to remember that parents are the first teachers their children will ever have. Until all parents are held to these ridiculous standards (and I’m not arguing that they should be), the standards are inappropriate for teachers as well. Honestly, this whole situation, and the trends in education generally, make every other career more appealing.

drsoul

January 22nd, 2010
9:53 am

This seems to be a very ‘heavy handed’ discrimination act… how can you discipline a teacher, who goes to extraordinary lengths to not ‘befriend’ a student socially and judge her personal civil rights outside the classroom???? how does this compare with the parents of any child that drink openly in the home and participate in the same activities???? Sure, teachers should have standards, just like parents should have and enforce standards within their own homes as to the exposure children get and are exposed to on a daily basis. This is an old song that we transfer the ‘child rearing’ to teachers and blame them, when the real problem should start at home with parents… also, I believe that this was also reported by some jealous teacher, probably because of popularity of this young lady doing her job well and being very attractive and probably trying to do the right thing, where a lot of teachers are really just content once they get their tenure, to keep the ’status quo’ from being questioned… they should seek the person out who sent this and put them on the stand…!!!!!

Bright Idea

January 22nd, 2010
9:57 am

30 year teacher here. Advice to rookies…NEVER trust an administrator to be looking out for you. They have no tenure and will chop you off at the knees if they think that is what will please their superiors or keep them off their backs.

DeKalb Conservative

January 22nd, 2010
10:00 am

@ Pity

I think you’re viewing this wrong. Ms. Payne shouldn’t need clearance from an AA problem either today, or in the past because Ms. Payne isn’t an alcoholic.

In addition, having he sue and getting enough money to sit home for a few years doesn’t come from some magic fountain, it comes from the tax payers, which this blog has extensively covered lately, are in trouble and schools already have budget shortfalls.

What I’ve seen Ms. Payne wants to be in the classroom. I think she should be and I’m sure there are many parents that would like to have their children thought by her, especially considering that she seems to live a very normal life.

Bill

January 22nd, 2010
10:03 am

Being a retired classroom educator, my opinions are:
When in the public spotlight, you have to be so very careful in what you do outside the classroom. DON’T AVERTISE YOUR PERSONAL LIFE!!!! YOU DON’T KNOW WHO IS WATCHING YOU!!! My wife who is a school administrator shows me some of her Facebook friends’ pictures who are also school administrators in the same school system. “OMG”, & “What are they thinking” when posting questionable pictures. When in doubt, don’t post incriminating pictures!!! I feel for the Barrow Co. teacher, and she was done wrong. I certainly hope Barrow Co. school system has to pay for damages they have done to this young teacher.

drsoul

January 22nd, 2010
10:22 am

As a follow up, it would seem that the school systems should prioritize their focus more on ridding the system of teachers, content and hiding behind tenure, who ARE NOT fulfilling their responsibilities fully in the classroom than worry about the social life of teachers… as long as a teacher is not hobnobbing with students and not breaking a law, then I do not believe that it is anyones business… again, to ostracize a teacher for the same thing that parents are doing is very contradictory and discriminatory…

DOE

January 22nd, 2010
10:28 am

So where do I send an an anonymous email to get the principal fired?

Meme

January 22nd, 2010
10:51 am

I am afraid that it may all come down to the fact that she wasn’t fired, but resigned. I think it was crazy for her to be asked to resign but she did.

Been There. . . Done, well. . . just done!

January 22nd, 2010
10:56 am

Maureen & other bloggers, while the Facebook aspect of the case may not be routine in ANY legal sense, the Barrow system officials “advising” Ms. Payne to resign is NOT a new tactic – having friends who teach in Cobb County, similar conduct from administrators occurred when some associates of the Bynums (among others) were running amok in the district (partly because their “advisors” held the district at bay for reasons known & not disclosed to the Cobb voting public). What may not have been discussed in this corner is the general administrative practice of “shunning” teacher associations and making certain their flyers & membership drive announcements “vanish” so as to avoid any outside organization challenging their power base. Due to the “right to work” status of this state, this practice is an underlying cancer threatening to choke off workers’ rights. Having some close to me out of work – which is Ms. Payne’s unfortunate status – this may come up during the media coverage of the legal proceedings involved. I would hope the state attorney general’s office keeps its eyes on this case – precedents will be set since Facebook & other, similar web sites will have their content marked by this situation – so OTHER state employees and those represented by workers’ associations (and that other dirty word – U-N-I-O-N-S) act swiftly to STOP some of these oligarchy-like school boards, central offices, and administrative bodies from destroying state workers’ careers and operating as though they are legitimized mafia-like agencies.

no one wins here

January 22nd, 2010
11:00 am

What is so sad is that no one is going to win here. The teacher will most likely to get the job back and some money, and she is the closest to being a winner. But, the money isn’t going to come from the principal or individual board members – it’s going to come from the system. Since they don’t have the unlimited resources, the money is going to be the money that would have gone to something else – maybe to other teachers or projects that are badly needed.

drsoul

January 22nd, 2010
11:01 am

I think that the coercion to resign should play a very significant part in this….

Bill

January 22nd, 2010
11:01 am

amen to Bright Idea- Your are so right!!!!!

anonymous

January 22nd, 2010
11:09 am

Dear AJC,

I am anonymous and would like to stay anonymous. My child reads your paper online and saw a picture you had posted of a woman smiling with two alcoholic drinks in her hand. This clearly implies that to be happy you must drink. You have scared my child’s psyche and adulterated his conscious. Please fire everybody for putting this picture on your site. Everyone else on the internet behaves themselves, why can’t you AJC? Why can’t you? Smiling suggestive young hussies with alcohol in their possion is pornographic!!!

Fire everybody. I am copying this letter to the Fulton County DA and the GBI.

Have a terrible day you immoral people.

That Guy

January 22nd, 2010
11:12 am

Bright Idea,

That’s very good advice for all if you think about it.

drsoul

January 22nd, 2010
11:14 am

You are a sick comedian anonymous…!!!!

Uncle Commode

January 22nd, 2010
11:16 am

This is a complete waste of time and money. Normally teachers accused of an indescretion are at fault…NO DOUBT. But look at that picture of Ashley Payne. Quite a lovely young lady I would say!

And this being the case these trumped up charges should be dismissed immediately. Its WAY PAST TIME for society and the ugly people to realize we, the beautiful people, come with a whole host of entitlements that simply arent available to the common working/ugly Amercian.

We the beautiful people are the movers and shakers, the annointed ones, the productive ones, the entitiled ones, the CHOSEN ONES and all you ugly people best begin to show us the respect and honor to which we are entitled. Move your big oversized behind mouthbreathers need to move out of our sight and stop breathing our air.

So please ugly people face the cold hard facts. We are smarter, prettier, more handsome, more likable, better looking, better drinkers, better partyers and in general better everything than you. I know these words may be hurtful to some, however and in this case, honestly is the best policy.

Now ugly people…please move along…Thank you.

MOVE IT OR LOSE IT!!

Snoopermom

January 22nd, 2010
11:29 am

I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that it was the principal who actually sent the anonymous email, a scheme to get her to resign for some reason.

Ricardo Cabeza

January 22nd, 2010
12:44 pm

Can you imagine the increased furor if the anonymous e-mail had also said ” . . .and she touched me inapropriately once” or soemthing to that effect. The poor woman would be rotting in jail now too! All it takes is one student with a grudge to ruin not only the career but the ENTIRE LIFE of any teacher in Georgia. Disgraceful.