A former Apalachee High School teacher has filed suit against Barrow County Schools saying she was forced to resign against her will.
In a lawsuit filed on October 15, 2009, Ashley Renee Payne alleges that upon her arrival at work on August 27, 2009, she was “ushered” into the office of Dorann Mansberger, the assistant principal at Apalachee High School, for a meeting with principal David McGee. Payne claims she was provided no advance notice regarding the purpose of the meeting.
According to the court filing, McGee informed Payne that the school system strongly disapproved of her activity on the popular social networking site Facebook. Specifically, McGee objected to photos which showed Payne holding alcoholic beverages while on vacation and a status update which used a pejorative term for females.
According to Payne’s attorney, Richard Storrs, Payne was not shown the photo to which McGee objected, nor was she provided a copy of the photo. Storrs further stated that Payne does not know how McGee learned about the photo.
“We do not know how the photo came to the attention of McGee or the school district,” Storrs wrote. “We do not even know if a photo was provided, or possibly if there was just something described second hand. Ashley certainly had not made any student her ‘friend’ to enable access to her Facebook page.”
During the meeting, McGee allegedly told Payne that her online conduct was unacceptable and that if she did not resign, she would be suspended. McGee further advised that a suspension would adversely affect her chances for future employment. The filing states that McGee told Payne that she “could not win this” and that resignation was her best option.
As a result of the meeting, Payne resigned from the school system immediately.
The lawsuit states that Payne was not informed of her right to a hearing, nor was it disclosed that a suspension could only be for a period of ten days. As a result, Payne claimed her resignation was wrongfully coerced by McGee.
On September 17, 2009, Storrs wrote to the Barrow County School district requesting that Payne be provided with the hearing required by the Georgia Fair Dismissal Act.
Under the terms of the act, a teacher having an employment contract, must be provided with written notice of any alleged charges and allowed a hearing before the local school board to contest the charges.
On September 21, 2009, legal counsel for Barrow County Schools replied stating that Payne would not be allowed to rescind her resignation.
In court documents, Payne’s attorney accuses Barrow County Schools of acting in bad faith, failing to meet the requirements of the Georgia Fair Dismissal Act, being “stubbornly litigious,” and causing Payne “unnecessary trouble and expense.”
Payne is requesting legal relief in which Barrow County Schools will be compelled to provide written notice of the charges against her and arrange a hearing in which she is allowed to contest the charges. The lawsuit further requests that Payne be awarded full compensation under the terms of her contract beginning from the date of her “constructive termination” until such time as she is provided a hearing. Payne is also requesting her legal fees be paid by the school system.
Barrow County Schools public relations coordinator Lisa Leighton declined to comment on the pending litigation saying "We make it a practice to not discuss personnel matters in public. We do this to protect not only the system, but also employees and non-employees."
At the time of Payne’s resignation, Barrow County Schools did not have a policy in place regarding social networking. The Board of Education is set to vote December 1 on a policy governing system employees’ interaction with students via Facebook, MySpace and the Internet in general.
The new policy prohibits employees from establishing personal relationships with students that are unprofessional.
The policy states in part: “Employees who post information on Facebook, MySpace or similar web sites that include inappropriate personal information such as, but not limited to: provocative photographs, sexually explicit messages, use of alcohol, drugs or anything students are prohibited from doing must understand that if students, parents or other employees obtain access to such information, their case will be investigated by school and district officials and if warranted will be disciplined up to and including termination, depending upon the severity of the offense.”
The policy further warns that the superintendent or his designees reserve the right to periodically conduct Internet searches to ascertain if employees have posted inappropriate material online.
According to Payne’s attorney, the proposed policy is “incredibly vague and overbroad.”
“It would bar a teacher from having a glass of wine at dinner in a restaurant, because a student might wander by,” Storrs said.
According to Leighton, Payne’s conduct at the time of her resignation was governed by the Professional Standards Commission Code of Ethics which mandates in part that “an educator shall always maintain a professional relationship with all students, both in and outside the classroom.”
Storrs maintains Payne did not violate the ethics code.
“There was no policy proscribing Ashley’s Facebook content and she did not post anything that was unethical or improper,” he said.