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Posted: Friday, Nov. 14, 2008

Teachers and Facebook: Privacy vs. standards

By Fred Clasen-Kelly
Published in: A Section

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An attorney for a suspended Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher said Thursday she never intended for the public to view negative comments she made about students on Facebook.

But the case is now part of a national debate that pits teachers' right to free expression against how communities expect them to behave.

“This is a new frontier in education, where technological and social norms are outpacing law and policy,” said Tom Hutton, an attorney for the National School Boards Association.

John Gresham of Charlotte, who represents the teacher, said she only meant to share her comments with friends with access to her page on the popular social networking site.

She now faces possible firing for listing “teaching chitlins in the ghetto of Charlotte” among her activities.

“Facebook pages are only meant to be viewed by people permitted to see them,” said Gresham, who questioned how her private postings became public.

On Thursday, CMS spokeswoman Nora Carr said the district allows teachers to post personal information online, but had to take action because it affected the teacher's ability to interact with students and parents. She called the comments racially insensitive or offensive to students at Thomasboro Elementary School, where she teaches.

“Clearly, when there is poor professional judgment, it impacts the teacher's ability to do their job,” Carr said.

CMS officials plan to send a memo to their 19,000 employees saying that Web postings that can be viewed by the public should be appropriate.

A 26-year-old third-grade CMS teacher who did not want her name used, fearing reprisals, said the district hasn't clearly specified what employees can and cannot post on such sites. Most teachers think if they keep their profiles private, she said, they'll be safe.

“Our principal encouraged us to use our profiles to post links like ‘Adopt A Classroom' to bring in potential donors,” she said. “But, given the recent investigations, he also told us to be careful about our Facebook material.”

CMS announced earlier this week it had suspended the teacher and disciplined four others for postings on Facebook. The action came after WCNC, the Observer's news partner, discovered the pages on the Web site by searching for people who identified themselves as CMS employees.

Postings include photos of female teachers in sexually suggestive poses and a black male teacher who listed “Chillin wit my n---as!!!” as an activity.

In her “About Me” section, the suspended teacher wrote: “I am teaching in the most ghetto school in Charlotte.” Most students at Thomasboro Elementary are minorities from low-income homes.

Gresham said the district took action against her because officials were embarrassed by news reports. He questioned whether it was appropriate for a reporter to air private postings.

He said the teacher is helping the district with grading while she is suspended, and has been sharing lesson plans.

Teachers across the country in recent years have been fired or suspended for online postings.

The incidents have divided educators.

Some say teachers can use social networking sites to help students, who communicate regularly online. Others say the risks are too great. They say some cases of teachers having inappropriate relationships with students started with electronic messaging.

Hutton said the CMS case has sparked nationwide discussions among educators. He said he advises school boards to weigh whether a particular posting puts a “ teacher's effectiveness at risk.”

“This is particularly an issue with young teachers who are in an anything-goes world online and coming into a profession with very high standards,” Hutton said.

Kim Graham, president of the Mecklenburg PTA Council, said her group has not taken a position on what limits teachers should face on the Internet.

She said the group will study the issue because teachers are “called to a higher sense of responsibility.”

She said the CMS teachers' postings were worrisome.

“I would be very concerned if my son or daughter were taught by someone who thought of them as a pig by-product,” Graham said. “I struggle to understand why anyone would say that about a child.” Staff Writer Julia Edwards contributed to this story.

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