BRADENTON, Fla. – On this Independence Day, a controversy over free speech among teachers using Facebook is making headlines after their online discussion referred to a student as possibly being “the evolutionary link between orangutans and humans.”
Now, the state of Florida will investigate the matter.
Bay News 9 obtained a Facebook conversation from mid-May among teachers at G.D. Rogers Garden Elementary School in Bradenton, Fla.
The exchange reportedly began with music teacher Lauren Orban writing: “I’m fairly convinced that one of my students may be the evolutionary link between orangutans and humans.”
The Bradenton Herald says several other instructors then jokingly joined the conversation, with second-grade teacher Emma Disley pressing Orban to share the student’s name, writing, “Please tell me who you are talking about. This made me laugh out loud. Haha.”
Another second-grade teacher, Laura Beth Cross, wrote, “even though I can probably guess, please tell.” When Orban revealed the student’s initials, Cross responded, “Yup! Just who I suspected!”
But the conversation came to a sudden halt when Jauana Johnson, the school registrar, jumped in to write, “What the hell is that suppose to mean?”
Johnson notified the boy’s parent, Lisa Wade, about the remarks.
“My blood’s boiling,” Wade told Bay News 9. “He’s not a monkey, he’s not an orangutan. He’s a human being.”
“I’m disgusted with how they talked about my child,” she added. “It hurts. … I send my child to school trusting them to teach him, not to talk about him.”
Margi Nanney of the Manatee County School District told Bay News 9, “First of all, that was very inappropriate and we certainly do not condone anything like that.”
“I think lessons come hard in this life and I think social media is one of the places where people can make mistakes and we hope this never occurs again,” she added.
The Herald is reporting Schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal is sending the case to the Professional Practices Commission at the state Department of Education, despite the fact the teachers have already been verbally disciplined by the school’s principal.
“We have administrators that make decisions every day, and we cannot go back and change the discipline,” he told the paper. “(But) this is something the state should be looking at. When I see these words, I feel they are just terrible.”
Because of the “offensive” nature of the remarks, McGonegal said it was important to “create a paper trail.” The state has a wide range of option in the matter, anything from taking no action to revoking the teachers’ certificates.
Orban, the teacher who made the initial comment about orangutans, has reportedly been teaching at Rogers Garden for two years with a flawless record.
Wade, meanwhile, is not satisfied with just a verbal reprimand for the teachers involved.
“The school isn’t doing anything about what happened,” she told the Herald. “If this is how teachers are talking on Facebook, who’s to say what goes on in the classroom? My child is in school to learn, not to be bullied or talked about. Those teachers need some more training, and they need to be at least suspended without pay.”
Wade has hired legal counsel to press for more substantial action against the instructors, and says she’s surprised about the entire matter because she has never been told of any disciplinary problems involving her son.
“If my child is being out of hand, send him a referral. Send him to the office. Send him home,” she said. “But don’t make comments about him on Facebook.”
Manatee County officials are now looking to prepare a policy to address proper conduct for teachers using social media.
The district previously had determined its Code of Ethics governs teachers’ behavior. That code requires instructors to “make reasonable effort to protect the student from conditions … harmful to the student’s mental and physical safety,” and to avoid “intentionally exposing a student to embarrassment or disparagement.”
Rodney Jones of the NAACP told Bay News 9 the incident has racial overtones, and he’d like to see retraining for those involved. He noted there “has to be some training opportunity and then the district has to be forward enough to develop a social media policy with enough teeth in it to keep this type of thing from happening.”
This case is just the latest involving teachers whose online presence has put their careers in jeopardy.
- In February, a high-school teacher in Philadelphia was suspended after blogging that her students sometimes acted like “rude, disengaged, lazy whiners.”
- In August, a Florida “Teacher of the Year” was fired for writing on Facebook outside school hours that he considered homosexual marriage to be a sin and same-sex unions a “cesspool.”
- In Pennsylvania in 2010, a teacher was suspended after a third party posted a picture on Facebook showing her with a male stripper at a bridal shower.
- In Georgia in 2011, teacher Ashley Payne lost a court case challenging her forced resignation in 2009. Her departure came after a parent objected to a photo she posted to Facebook showing her holding a drink while on vacation in Europe. School officials said the posting “promoted alcohol use.”
- In 2009, Wisconsin teacher Betsy Ramsdale was put on leave for posting a picture of herself looking down the sight of a rifle on her Facebook site.
“We demand a great deal of our public school teachers. They put in long hours in overcrowded classrooms, and yet they receive lower salaries than people in other professions requiring similar education levels,” Turley said in his published defense of educators.
“For this sacrifice, we now demand that they live their lives according to a morality standard set to satisfy the lowest common denominator of parental sensibilities. They live under the transparent conditions of celebrities without any of the benefits, with parental paparazzi eager to catch them in an unguarded moment. They deserve better.”