Not a week goes by when I don’t get an e-mail from somewhere around the world asking about the fate of Ashley Payne, the Barrow County teacher who lost her job two years ago after an anonymous e-mailer sent Facebook photos of her sipping wine and drinking beer in Europe.
While the case was in court last week, it remains unresolved. A decision is expected shortly but Payne’s attorney is not optimistic that she will regain her high school teaching position.
“Not yet. I don’t think it is happening,” said attorney Richard Storrs in a telephone interview today. “There is a new superintendent, and I was really hoping that this new superintendent would see things in such a way that we could move forward. But they are dug in more than ever.”
Now in graduate school at the University of Georgia, Payne said in an e-mail today, “I don’t think winning my job back has been a possibility since my contract ran out in the summer of 2010. The best I can hope for is some kind of monetary compensation and for everything to be resolved so that potential employers will know that there is no more to the story and no skeletons waiting to come out of my closet. I wonder if the ‘pending’ status of my case has made employers hesitant to hire me.”
The Facebook photos were standard travel shots in beer gardens and cafes and would have passed muster with most Sunday school teachers. Payne was simply sitting at a table with pals. Of 700 vacation photos, 10 had alcohol in them.
On her Facebook page, which was set to the highest privacy levels and was limited to Payne’s adult friends, she also posted that she was headed out to play Crazy Bitch Bingo, a popular game played weekly at Joe’s On Juniper in Atlanta.
According to an anonymous e-mail sent to the Barrow school chief, a student saw Payne’s Facebook page, an allegation that rang false from the start. In court documents, Barrow County admitted later that it never discovered the source of the e-mail or whether any student ever saw Payne’s Facebook page. (If you read my earlier blogs, you will see there is good reason to believe a colleague of Payne’s sent the e-mail, which came from a fake address.)
That is an important factor in this case as Barrow initially told me that Payne’s main offense was sharing her Facebook page with a student. Yet, the system never confirmed that a student ever saw the page.
At the time, I talked to the head of the state 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 the written statement provided to me by Barrow County schools.
In an overreaction that drew condemnation around the world, Barrow forced the young teacher and UGA grad to resign. (If you are unfamiliar with this case, please read this blog.) The story sparked international debate over whether teachers should have Facebook pages, and where their privacy and school conduct codes collide
Barrow has moved for summary judgment, which is a ruling by a court without a full trial. Arguments were heard last week in Superior Court.
“The judge basically expressed that he thought some of their arguments were persuasive, basically that Barrow delayed long enough now that mandamus is not the right remedy. So, I told Ashley after the hearing that we would amend the complaint and go from there,” said Storrs. (See news story below for explanation of mandamus in this case.)
Payne continues to pursue her master’s degree to make her more marketable as a teacher, says Storrs. “It just doesn’t make any sense what happened to her. And she is such a delightful person. At every juncture, I thought we could get this resolved.”
Payne and I exchanged e-mails a while back about the case in general. I asked her if I could post her comments back then and she agreed, but I was waiting for an update to her case to share them:
So, here they are:
“I want more than anything for this case to be resolved– in my favor, but I am doing my best to move on with my life in the meantime. Teaching is still what I want to do despite the bureaucratic hypocrisy with which I have had to deal. I don’t want to let myself fall by the wayside like many passionate young teachers who are quickly jaded by the American educational system and switch to more appreciated careers that pay higher salaries.
“The system needs more young (and old!), passionate, idealistic thinkers — in spite of the fact that some of us use newfangled social networking sites and have a glass of wine or two during summer vacation. That’s why I’m seeking some semblance of justice in this case and continuing to work on my M.Ed. in Educational Psychology at the University of Georgia. I love kids, and I am learning even more about how they think and learn so that hopefully — hopefully soon — I can get back in the classroom and get back to doing what I love.”
Former Barrow County teacher Ashley Payne is waiting on a decision from a Superior Court judge about her former job.
It’s been nearly two years since the former Apalachee High School teacher claims she was forced to resign from her job due to the content of her Facebook page — a photo of her with an alcoholic drink and a posted curse word.
Payne filed a lawsuit against the district in October 2009, asking for a hearing from the Board of Education to determine whether she should keep her job and keep seeking payment from Aug. 27, 2009, until the day of the hearing.
Payne, her attorney Richard Storrs of Mills Paskert Divers and the counsel for the school district, Daniel Murphy of McLocklin & Murphy LLP, appeared before Chief Judge David Motes last week. Motes reviewed the Barrow County School District’s request for a summary judgment, which would allow Motes to dismiss the case without it going to trial.
The controversy surrounding Payne began Aug. 27, 2009, when an anonymous email sent to then-Superintendent Ron Saunders complained about the content on Payne’s page.Saunders forwarded the email to Apalachee Principal David McGee.
According to Payne, McGee called her into his office before classes began and convinced her to resign, saying she would be suspended otherwise.The district has always maintained that Payne resigned voluntarily.The case has gotten national attention and called into question how school faculty should handle themselves in the world of social media.
According to the attorney for Barrow County Schools, Payne’s complaint against the system should be dismissed for four reasons: Payne’s complaint, called a writ of mandamus, was filed against the Board of Education when it should have been filed against Saunders; a mandamus cannot be used to compel discretionary actions; a mandamus cannot undo an act that has already been done; and since Payne’s contract is expired, her request to initiate Fair Dismissal Proceedings is void.
Before the trial, Storrs said he filed an amendment adding the superintendent to the complaint.
On the other three counts, however, Motes appeared to favor the school district’s claims.
“The judge did not rule … but he said the school district has presented a pretty persuasive argument that this mandamus may not be right,” Storrs said. However, he still believes his client has a strong case.
“Our argument is that she was entitled to her hearing and is still entitled to that, she was entitled to her pay, so we believe the mandamus is still appropriate,” he said.
Storrs is also planning the next move for his client. “My basic plan is to file an amended complaint which will still be valid claims,” he said. “I think she has a valid claim for breach of contract for salary, and also think she has a claim for civil rights violations for not getting her hearing.”
Murphy was more hesitant to comment on the case. “The judge didn’t rule, so it’s really premature (to speculate),” he said. “We don’t know if there’s going to be another hearing. If there’s going to be another hearing, we know the issues but we don’t know when or where that will take place. … I don’t want the judge to think we’re trying this in the press. We are completely at the discretion of the court.”
–from Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog