Rights and wrong: Using Facebook to defame teachers

Facebook.0607 (Medium)As many of you predicted, a Douglas County middle school has backed off plans to suspend three students for Facebook postings because of the privacy issues implicated by the principal’s actions in forcing one of the students to log on to the social network at school and show her the postings calling a teacher a “pedophile” and a “rapist.”

And as many of you also predicted, the parents are considering suing. They ought to be grateful, not litigious.

If these were my kids, I would tell them that they got a break this time, that they are walking away from a dangerous mistake that in the future could cost their jobs.

I would tell them that they attempted to ruin someone’s good name for kicks and that is a sign that they are immature children and that I will now have to treat them as such, no phone, no computer, no parties, no movies. At least one of the parents has taken some of those actions, but I wonder if the reprimand will be undermined by the parents’ thoughts of going to court against the school system.

A court case against Douglas County schools would keep this story in the news,  and I think these adolescents would not benefit from more attention to their terrible behavior. It does not serve them well. The law may be on their side, but the public will not be.

Most people will not think it’s the school system that needs the real lesson here.

According to the AJC:

The students, who called a teacher at Chapel Hill Middle School in Douglas County a “pedophile” and a “rapist” in online posts last month, will return to school Tuesday after a two-week suspension, said William Lambert, Jr., one of the parents.

The kids had faced re-assignment to a school for troubled youths for at least the rest of the semester. But earlier this week the Douglas school system canceled the tribunal hearing that had been scheduled for Thursday morning.

Lambert and the parents of the other two children contend that school principal Jolene Morris violated the students’ privacy. They said Morris forced one of the children, 13-year-old Alejandra Sosa,  to log onto her Facebook account at school so the principal could read what the girl and her friends had written.

“The bottom line is the principal was wrong and somebody told her that,” said Lambert. He said Morris called him Monday to tell him the tribunal had been canceled, but offered no explanation.

A Douglas County schools spokeswoman confirmed last week that a hearing involving three unidentified children and Facebook posts was to occur Thursday. But when asked Thursday about the cancellation of that hearing, the spokeswoman, Karen Stroud, said she could no longer talk about the case because of the media coverage. The names of the children had been published and Stroud said she was bound by federal privacy laws regarding disciplinary actions.

In an interview last week, Stroud said the three students were accused of a “level one” offense, the worst possible under school system code, which prohibits “falsifying, misrepresenting, omitting, or erroneously reporting” allegations of inappropriate behavior by a school employee toward a student.

Alejandra, in an interview with her mother, Maria Sosa, said last week that Morris ordered her to log onto her Facebook account on a library computer. She said the principal then read that Alejandra had called one of her teachers a “pedophile.” The principal then read posts by other children, according to Alejandra. That’s where she saw that 12-year-old William Lambert III had called the same teacher a rapist, according to the boy’s father.

Stephanie Lamb, the mother of Taylor Tindle, 12, also said that is where the principal read that Taylor had called the teacher a pedophile.

All three parents said their children had behaved badly, but they also said the punishment was too severe and that their kids were studious, earning As and Bs, and otherwise well-behaved. Lamb said expulsion to the county’s “alternative” school would expose her daughter to gangs and drugs.

The three parents banded together and hired a lawyer.

Lambert said the school system’s decision to relent on the threatened expulsion has not altered his desire to go to court. “We’re considering at least going to federal, saying our rights were violated,” he said.

Lambert, the parent of the boy who called a Chapel Hill teacher a rapist on Facebook, said clear rules are needed. He said he had a talk with his son about the damage one can inflict with words, then took his cell phone and video games as punishment. He also asked his daughter to disable her little brother’s Facebook account.

But Lambert said there is no way “to police it 100 percent” because of the anonymity of the Internet and the ubiquity of computers outside the home — and away from parents’ view.

“If they think their child doesn’t have Facebook they have a rude awakening because you can put a Facebook account under any name,” Lambert said. “This is not over. Facebook is growing.”

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

109 comments Add your comment

Me

March 10th, 2011
7:40 pm

Exactly what is wrong with public school. Idiot loser parents, spoiled brat children and spineless central office administrators. All the principal did was back the teachers as he or she should.

Karma

March 10th, 2011
7:42 pm

In other news, Big Bev in APS is finally getting some of what she’s been dishing out. Love it!

Me

March 10th, 2011
7:42 pm

And the teacher needs to sue the families involved for libel.

V for Vendetta

March 10th, 2011
7:45 pm

Maureen,

Isn’t Me correct. Can’t the teacher sue the parents for libel?

Just curious

Teach

March 10th, 2011
7:45 pm

Somebody please ban together and sue these ignorant parents that think “My child makes only A’s and B’s, he/she can do no wrong”. All these parents are doing is teaching their children that you do not have to answer for your wrong doings, if you whine and cry, kick and scream you will get out of anything.

s2k

March 10th, 2011
7:49 pm

I would love to hear from the teacher. I really would. Because the blowhard parent needs to shut his mouth else he find himself sued. The slandered teacher has a much stronger case than the parents do against the school system.

Justin in Lawrenceville

March 10th, 2011
7:58 pm

The teacher cannot sure for libel, and neither can the school discipline the children for their posts. Why you may ask? The speech is protected under the 1st Amendment, furthered by the fact these postings were made in a private forum. Yes that’s right, Facebook is a private forum. You must be a member, through signing up, in order to participate in posting there. Additionally, each post has 3 privacy settings to choose from, limiting what other members can view the posts’ content.

oldtimer

March 10th, 2011
8:03 pm

And those children and their parents will be demonstrating at the capital someday cause someone owes them something!! Really parents is that how you teach your children about not being a bully!

minns

March 10th, 2011
8:10 pm

I completely agree with you. Being a parent and a teacher myself, I can see both sides of the coin, and have one question to ask our society: when will our children be held responsible for their actions? When will they learn to bear consequences for their misdeeds instead of shoving the blame on everybody else? When will the lawmakers of our country understand that our children are what they are today because of all the pampering and protection they get by the system. If teachers are not given the respect they deserve from students and their parents, will learning be as productive as its meant to be?

Mikey D

March 10th, 2011
8:12 pm

So these disgusting kids post accusations that their teacher is a rapist and a pedophile, and somehow that makes THEM victims? And they’ve been victimized so badly that their parents simply MUST sue the school system… Of course! And people wonder why teachers feel like they constantly take abuse. Go figure!

s2k

March 10th, 2011
8:13 pm

*facepalm*

@Justin – defamation (libel, slander) along with EIGHT other categories make up the kinds of speech that aren’t protect. Just because something flies out of your mouth doesn’t mean it’s protected.

“Defamation refers to false statements of fact that harm another’s reputation.”

http://www.fac.org/Speech/faqs.aspx?id=15822&

teacher

March 10th, 2011
8:15 pm

Student invade teacher’s privacy all the time by recording the teachers in class without their permission. Students are constantly doing things they should not be doing. Today a group of teachers were discussing discipline issues and we all indicated that the students are running the schools in many locations. You guys have no idea how true this is.

Echo

March 10th, 2011
8:16 pm

Justin you may want to actually be a lawyer before commenting on the law. The 1st amendment does NOT protect anyone when they libel someone.

Darn Yankee

March 10th, 2011
8:29 pm

@Justin – the first ammendment is not all-emcompassing. There are several types of speech NOT protected, and libel is one (as a part of defamation, which also includes slander). The others include obscenity, fighting words, child pornography, perjury, blackmail, incitement to lawless action and solicitation for a crime, and true threats,

Your right to privacy is limited on the internet, and can be argued to be unexpected (like cell phone conversations).

minns

March 10th, 2011
8:31 pm

@Mickey D @ teacher: You said it! Teachers are not supposed to have privacy issues, you know! They are just expected to treat these wonderful children with utmost respect. After all, these teachers are the adults in the classroom, they know better, and kids being kids…. well, kids do things they don’t really understand, so teachers must behave in a more mature way. Even if the kids parents are ready to sue schools for no apparent fault of the teachers/ administration, teachers cannot in the world begin to complain!

td

March 10th, 2011
8:32 pm

Mikey D

March 10th, 2011
8:12 pm
So these disgusting kids post accusations that their teacher is a rapist and a pedophile, and somehow that makes THEM victims? And they’ve been victimized so badly that their parents simply MUST sue the school system… Of course! And people wonder why teachers feel like they constantly take abuse. Go figure!

There was two wrongs in this case. 1st, the kids can not be disciplined by the school because there speech is protected by the first amendment. The parent can sue the school system and the punishment will be taken away.

2nd: The children’s speech is protected from the school system but it may be considered slanderous and the children can be held liable from a personal lawsuit from the teacher.

I personally hope the teacher sues all three parents and wins every penny possible. I must agree with the students and our rights to free speech must be protected at all cost against government recrimination.

Metro Coach

March 10th, 2011
8:36 pm

Got some news for you folks…there is no way that principal could have made that kid get on Facebook from the library at school. Why you ask? Facebook is BLOCKED on school computers, just like YouTube and other social sites. As for Justn in Lawrenceville…better to be thought of as a fool than to open your mouth(or in this case, type on your keyboard) and remove all doubt.

teacher&mom

March 10th, 2011
8:41 pm

Something very similar happened to a friend of mine. She contacted and lawyer and was told that yes she could sue for libel.

@Metro Coach….not every school blocks Facebook. I constantly battle students checking their status throughout the day :(

minns

March 10th, 2011
8:50 pm

@Metro Coach: Fb is not blocked by all school servers. Even if it is blocked, I heard there are proxy servers that that can go around blocked sites.

Darn Yankee

March 10th, 2011
9:01 pm

Some of you REALLY need a lesson in the First Ammendment…not ALL speech is protected. This may be one of those cases.

The school backed off on discipline NOT because of the First Ammendment, but because this happened off school grounds and after school hours – that whole pesky “jurisdiction” thing, ya know? And the Supreme Court has upheld (since 1969, I believe) that students’ free speech rights can be limited in school – the famous Tinker v. Des Moines armband case. Everyone remembers the quote about “the students don’t lose their consitutional rights at the schoolhouse door” but everyone forgets the part about how the schools can restrict speech if it interfers with the school’s educational mission – I’d venture a guess that if this occurred during the school day, the discipline quite possibly could stick under that clause.

As far as students’ parents go? I think their jump to suit and defense of their children’s actions are a pretty reprehensible example of parenting at its worst. Whatever happened to shame? I’d be MORTIFIED if one of my children ever did something like that. Great lesson to teach your kids, folks. You probably think their freedom of speech was violated, too. Unbelievable.

ScienceTeacher671

March 10th, 2011
9:09 pm

Metro Coach, there are sites that are blocked for students, sites that are blocked for students and teachers, and sites that are blocked for everyone — and as Minns states, the students know how to get around the blocking software anyway.

The really crazy thing about the “net nanny” software is that it really only blocks the teachers and the really naive and honest kids.

HS Public Teacher

March 10th, 2011
9:27 pm

What would happen if the teacher posted similarly bad comments about the students on facebook? Do you think that nothing would happen? Just askin’…..

tiredmom

March 10th, 2011
9:42 pm

I certainly hope the teacher consults a lawyer and considers some type of action toward these parents and their children. Perhaps a strong lesson now before these spoiled brats hit high school will teach them not to make slanderous comments about other people. The parents should be ashamed of themselves.

catlady

March 10th, 2011
9:44 pm

Actually, teachers are libeled all the time. When a parent (who wasn’t there) tells a teacher (who was there) that Little Precious didn’t do something the teacher saw him/her do, they are saying that the teacher is lying. And, to a truthful person, that is libelous. And isn’t “liar” an example of fighting words?

Lee

March 10th, 2011
9:51 pm

Most likely, the school system’s attorneys instructed administration that they overstepped their authority and there was a high probability that they would not prevail if the parents brought a lawsuit. A few thoughts:

1. This issue with social media is not going away and will only become more prevalent. School systems need to develop protocols to deal with this issue and TRAIN teachers and administrators on the proper way to handle it.

2. I find great irony with bloggers who condemn these students for libel/slander, but then call them slanderous names such as “idiotic parents” and “disgusting kids”.

3. I’m not real sure the teacher could sue the parents in this case. I think you would have to prove knowledge of the libelous posting by the parent and that would be hard to do.

4. I’m also not certain that the teacher could sue the students for libel. Slander/libel is a civil issue and I don’t think minors can be held liable in civil court.

5. Best case scenario at this point would be for all parties to drop it and walk away with some valuable life experience, IMHO.

Mikey D

March 10th, 2011
9:59 pm

@Lee:
Call it irony if you like. These kids were disgusting, because their actions were so reprehensible. There’s a big difference between calling someone disgusting who engages in disgusting behavior, and calling someone a pedophile and a rapist. For me to call these kids disgusting is my opinion, and there’s a pretty strong reason why I developed that opinion. For these kids to call a teacher a pedophile and a rapist is purporting to state a fact about that person. Big difference. HUGE. Sorry you’re not able to process the difference.

fultonschoolsparent

March 10th, 2011
9:59 pm

Isn’t there an age limit for FB? If they’re 11 or 12, they’ve already lied by saying they are over 18.

Cobb History Teacher

March 10th, 2011
10:16 pm

@Justin…

“The teacher cannot sure for libel, and neither can the school discipline the children for their posts. Why you may ask? The speech is protected under the 1st Amendment, furthered by the fact these postings were made in a private forum. Yes that’s right, Facebook is a private forum. You must be a member, through signing up, in order to participate in posting there. Additionally, each post has 3 privacy settings to choose from, limiting what other members can view the posts’ content.”

Does the same apply to a teacher (i.e. the teacher with a blog that was in the news recently)? Can teacher post on a private site and say ugly things about students? Is that considered free speech? Is it protected? I don’t believe either student or teacher should do it but I’d be interested to know if the” big bad teacher” would get in trouble. Free speech or not if you let children do these kinds of things you are setting them up for a fall. They can and will get fired for doing this to an employer and it teaches them nothing about civility.

Do we really want our children to grow up thinking they can talk to or about anyone any way they like?

Another Math Teacher

March 10th, 2011
10:20 pm

“The really crazy thing about the “net nanny” software is that it really only blocks the teachers and the really naive and honest kids.”

The only purpose of black lists created through blocking software is to allow the school system some legal stand if a student was to access inappropriate content.

Metro Coach, might want to verify “facts” before posting them. Douglas County students can access many inappropriate sites.

Sarah

March 10th, 2011
10:31 pm

I’m usually not one to recommend a lawsuit but in this case these accusations could have done irreparable harm to this teacher’s professional standing and reputation. It’s reprehensible that the parents in this scenario would consider filing suit, it demonstrates an appalling lack of judgement and critical thinking skills on their part. What our nation hardly needs is another set of self-entitled children who grow up thinking their parents will fight every battle for them. They can and should be sued!

Teacher Reader

March 10th, 2011
11:47 pm

What happened to teaching your child to treat others the way that you would want to be treated? These parents are just looking for money and have the mentality that plagues many in today’s society: My child can do whatever he/she wants. They have rights. What parents forget that with the rights that we are given also comes responsibility and these children need to be responsible for their actions.

If the teacher had done this and was let off the hook that easy, they would have sued as well. These parents are looking for a quick buck instead of realizing that this is a great opportunity to teach their child a lesson on how to behave and how your actions/decisions have consequences.

Cindy B

March 10th, 2011
11:59 pm

The conduct that is expected of school children is outlined in the student handbook, which every child AND parent in Douglas Co. is required to read and sign at the beginning of the school year. The actions of these children violated those rules. Period. Further, it violated numerous rules under Facebook’s own Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. They had no right to be on Facebook in the first place, they had no right to make the libelous statements, and they had no right to complain about the principal making them take down the posts. To me, that’s kind of like complaining if your mom made you take something back to the store that you shoplifted. I agree with Maureen 100%. If it were my kid, I’d be thanking my lucky stars and not looking a gift horse in the mouth.

kelly

March 11th, 2011
12:01 am

thank you, s2k, for pointing out that the 1st amendment doesn’t cover anything and everything that is spoken. i get so tired of idiots who think it does. are we really so busy teaching outside the academic realm these days to make up for slack parenting and other social issues that the constitution is *completely* left out?

as an american who lives abroad, i am reluctant to say the word “lawsuit,” but in this case, it’s not only justified but essential. the teacher, and perhaps the school, depending on the posts, should sue the families and start a movement towards prosecution instead of allowing these obnoxious brats and their self-centered, lazy parents ruin this teacher’s career (not to mention warp the school’s/district’s rules). i certainly hope they screenshot the page(s).

and cobb teacher, the “big bad teacher” certainly bought herself a packload of trouble for her posts, including losing her job. that road should run both ways.

thanks maureen. your blog always gets my interest, that’s for sure!

kelly

March 11th, 2011
12:03 am

@fultonschoolparent: the age requirement to have a facebook account is 13.

PatDowns

March 11th, 2011
12:20 am

@ kelly
March 11th, 2011
12:03 am

Kids under 13 can have FaceBook accounts with parental consent.

Jennifer

March 11th, 2011
1:36 am

Maureen,
Have any of your children ever had to go through the expulsion process ? Have you ever had to hire an attorney to make a district do the right thing, even though the district had plenty of legal counsel and already and knew the right thing to do when the whole process started ? How many families do not have an attorney ? By not making a big dang deal about it, the district just knows that they will continue to get away with it the minute the camera turns away. And they will, over and over again.
I think parents can teach both lessons at one time. I know a few who have. That public opinion will change when it is their student.

Larry Major

March 11th, 2011
2:14 am

It doesn’t matter if it was a private forum; the law only requires that it be transmitted to a third party. In this case (if the facts are reported correctly) the principal’s action would disqualify her as a witness, so they’d have to get someone with access to testify.

As several posters have pointed out, calling someone a rapist or pedophile is not an opinion, but an accusation of criminal activity. Such accusations are not protected speech. But again, the school has no legal standing for a defamation claim and the teachers as individuals must initiate the legal action.

The situations with teachers’ postings are typically a different legal point involving the extent to which an employee voluntarily limits their speech as a condition of employment.

Tired Teacher

March 11th, 2011
5:42 am

The teacher should hire an attorney and alert PAGE or NEA and be prepared. Much depends on the judge who hears the case. The parents and society in general have seemingly made it a sport to villianize teachers for all that is wrong in society. Students have been shown that teachers are “fair game.” Expect more of this until the grown-up children become adults and take responsiblity for their actions.

FBT

March 11th, 2011
6:02 am

Another case of bullying. School employees take it seriously when they are the victims.

Bryan in South GA

March 11th, 2011
6:16 am

Our middle students check their Facebook status on their personal smartphones in the bathrooms and gym locker. Nothing is blocked. A student photographed me during class and posted the photos on her Facebook. Her classmates told me all about it. I called the father and requested that the photos be removed. He said he would. You post something on the internet and then get indignant about your privacy? Unreal.

Elizabeth

March 11th, 2011
6:22 am

First: The person who said you can’t sue the parents unless you can prove they knew about the post: Yes, you can sue. If the child is not of legal age, the PARENTS can be held responsible for the actions of their children. If they had vandalized a house or school, the PARENTS could be required to make restitution. So these parents can be sued for libel, slander, and defamation of character. And if I were that teacher, I would already have contacted GAE, PAGE and an attorney.

Second: What will happen when those children return to school? Will they be placed back in that teacher’s class? If so, that teacher has a legal right to have them removed from the class and placed elsewhere. Maureen, do we know anything about that?

Third: Teachers on Facebook do NOT have the same rights as others. They can and have been disciplined for posting much less reprehensible content because they are considered by law to b e held to a higher standard than the average user. This was metioned on a previous topic blog.

Fourth: Most teachers hear verbal abuse from kids and parents on a daily basis and are powerless to stop it. We took a group of 8th grade students to the high school last week to tour the school and hear about high school requirements. One student deliberately wandered off from the group and was found in the restroom. After warning him, we made him walk with the teacher for the remainder of the visit. When we called his mother later that day to tell her he was receiving a consequence, she called the teacher a series of names, cursed her, and blamed his behavior on the teacher. Is this unusual behavior from a parent? NO, IT IS TYPICAL BEHAVIOR AND IT IS HOW WE ARE TREATED ON A DAiLY BASIS BY parents and students.

You can preach education reform all day and night. But until these attitudes towards teachers change and until TEACHERS are respected and supported, absolutely nothing we do will change education in this state. Parents and students have all the rights; teachers have none.

Nicely Done

March 11th, 2011
6:25 am

I am a teacher in the Metro area. I can assure that if this happened to me I would absolutely sue the parents and/or the kids.

Coastal Georgia Teacher

March 11th, 2011
6:27 am

Spoiled brat kids and their parents are running the schools. We all live in fear of students doing something like this to us. No one supports the teachers. We are the nation’s scapegoats. Can’t wait to retire in May.

Dr NO

March 11th, 2011
6:57 am

Justin in Lawrenceville

March 10th, 2011
7:58 pm

As long as the speech doesnt cause “harm” ie libel, slander etc then the kids and adults for that matter may say what they will.

Dr NO

March 11th, 2011
6:58 am

Bullying? What with this bullying talk. You folks sure bought ObaManures entire load of horse apples on this one.

Sound like a bunch of girls. “Mommy…sally made fun of my hair ribbon today…WWWAAAHHHHH”. Grow up, girls.

s2k

March 11th, 2011
7:11 am

@Lee 2. “I find great irony with bloggers who condemn these students for libel/slander, but then call them slanderous names such as “idiotic parents” and “disgusting kids”.

You should know (in case you don’t) that statements of opinion such as you mention, would not stand up in court according to the standard. Calling someone an “idiot” does not put that person up to losing their job. Even if it’s true.

@Catlady – The Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that “personally abusive epithets which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reactions.” I’m not sure the teacher has a strong enough case under “fighting words,” but according to the burden of proof required for a defamation suit.

http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/

President NO

March 11th, 2011
7:12 am

Nicely Done

March 11th, 2011
6:25 am

And would probably be tossing good money after bad.

annmac

March 11th, 2011
7:21 am

I’ve seen some pretty amazing (not in a good way) posts by teachers about their students and parents. Goes both ways. Suspension is appropriate punishment – plus even more meted out at home – but expulsion is absurd

Lee

March 11th, 2011
7:36 am

@Elizabeth, re: “If they had vandalized a house or school, the PARENTS could be required to make restitution. So these parents can be sued for libel, slander, and defamation of character.”

Vandalism is a criminal offense. Libel/slander is a civil offense. Big difference.

Inman Park Boy

March 11th, 2011
7:52 am

In some instances parents can be held civilly liable for the intentional wrong acts of their children, including the torts of libel and slander. I would encourage any person so wronged to seek legal counsel.