Manatee County School Board in News Again For Teacher Facebook Comment Problems

July 10, 2012 at 12:22 am | Posted in Employee, Employer, Employment Law, Facebook, Social Media/Social Networking, union | Leave a comment

The last time Manatee County’s School Board was in the news it was due to a teacher’s comments on Facebook about allegedly being inebriated, including alleged profanity Facebook style.  See my prior October 2010 and January 2011 blog postings.  Challenges were filed regarding the disciplinary action attempted, and the parties agreed to settle their differences outside of the administrative process.  The Manatee County School Board said then it would attempt to draft policies about Facebook use by teachers and staff; those policies were never issued.  This author hypothesizes that it was just too difficult to come to  consensus on a policy that balanced the privacy rights of teachers with the School Board’s asserted duty to uphold their Handbook policies and the various codes and statutes that govern teacher conduct.

Manatee County is again in the news because a music teacher in Manatee County, Ms. Lauren Orban, recently made disparaging comments on her Facebook page about one of her second grade students.  The teacher’s friends on her Facebook page, including fellow teachers, joined in the conversation.  One of these Facebook friends provided copies of the conversation to the administration at Ms. Orban’s school.  At some point, the media learned of the incident and now the student’s parent is calling for Ms. Orban’s termination.   Ms. Orban has been reported to Florida’s Department of Education for additional inquiry into whether her conduct violates the very broad Teacher Code of Conduct.

Manatee County’s School Board is back to the drawing board on the need to create policies that govern Facebook and teachers.  Teachers – and other professionals – have been warned as a matter of good professional practice not to “friend” students or subordinates.  In today’s modern age, students communicate via technology – text, Facebook, or IM – rather than via older more traditional methods like phone trees and fliers.  Teachers of drama or other clubs have found Facebook to be an effective method of communicating with their students as to practices and event reminders.  When creating policies, the District may want to carve out exceptions for this type of “friending” or communication.

In an interview with ABC 7 here in Sarasota, Florida, Manatee County School District Superintendent McGonegal stated that teachers need to be aware that wherever they are, their Facebook postings could be an issue.  This statement is troubling in that I do not think the Manatee County School Board has the right to govern what teachers do or say in the privacy of their own homes behind closed doors, say at 1:30 a.m.?  Teachers, and other public employees, have due process rights in their jobs.  In the private sector here in Florida, an “at-will” employment state, as long as a termination is not based upon a discriminatory reason, an employee can be terminated for no reason at all.  Writing Facebook policies governing private sector employees is a simpler task due to this “at will” status.  Facebook policies reflecting the expansive view expressed by Superintendent McGonegal will likely be met with a challenge from the local teacher’s union as well as civil rights groups.

For more information, go to ABC 7 reporter John McQuiston’s article about the issue, along with my reported comments:

http://www.mysuncoast.com/content/topstories/story/What-you-can-safely-say-on-social-media/aOaZBBBvAUqDK_gmqpyS1g.cspx.

For more information about the series of events at issue, including the actual comments made by Ms. Orban, go to ABC 7 reporter Max Winitz’s article:

http://www.mysuncoast.com/content/topstories/story/Bradenton-teacher-in-hot-water-after-Facebook/Kw8YaII46kyi4U7bys4WAA.cspx.

I will post updates to this story as they occur.

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