20 CEA ADVISOR DECEMBER 17 - JANUARY 18 DEFENDING IMPORTANCE OF UNION REPRESENTATION CEA gets record cleared, pay restored for suspended veteran teacher A veteran teacher with an unblemished work history and no disciplinary record gets called down to the principal’s office and—with no written or verbal warning—is hit with a five-day, unpaid suspension. Doesn’t sound like it can happen, right? Wrong. It happened to Chaplin Elementary School teacher Barbara Walters. “In my entire 37-year career, I haven’t had as much as a verbal or written warning. Now, all of a sudden, I was facing a five-day suspension without pay,” said Walters. “Teaching is my life. I was devastated. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut.” Like eight out of 10 American adults online, Walters has a Facebook account. She uses it to cheer on her favorite teams, post family pictures, share recipes and quotes, and stay in touch with loved ones and friends. She has a strict policy of limiting her social media use to non-work hours, and though her Facebook friends include teachers, parents, and former students, all are college-graduate age or older. Last year, Walters reposted two humorous quips on Facebook— e-cards she received poking fun at workplace dynamics. The cards were not sexual or bigoted in nature, and several parents and colleagues who saw them commented positively and hit the “Like” button. What happened next surprised everyone. A member of the Board of Education who saw the posts forwarded them to the superintendent of schools, claiming she found them offensive. When her principal inquired, Walters explained that she hadn’t intended to offend anyone. She promptly deleted the posts. “When I was asked to come to the principal’s office, I was told I could have union representation. As a veteran teacher who’s never been in any trouble, my first thought was, ‘No, it can’t be anything serious.’ It turns out I was wrong. I was told a second time that I could have a union rep with me, and one of our reps happened to be right there, so I said OK.” Walters later realized how important that decision would be. Strong ally The union rep guided Walters during her interview on what information to share with her administrator as well as what to ask. “When I found out I was being suspended without pay, I can’t really explain what that was like,” Walters recalls. The surprise disciplinary action cost her more than $2,100 in lost pay, forced her to reschedule parent/ teacher conferences, and left her students without their teacher for an entire week. “It was so important that I had someone from the union with me,” Walters said. “She got in touch with CEA UniServ Rep Michael Casey, who immediately set up a meeting with me. I still didn’t fully understand what was going on, but he was with me through the whole process. He sat down with me, got to know me as a person and as a teacher, and then we talked about the case.” “Teachers get into this profession because they love children and want to help them to grow and succeed,” Casey says. “That’s where their entire focus is. So when a teacher is suddenly accused of wrongdoing, it is vitally important that they seek help immediately—before they start talking to administration. Often they don’t realize how their words or actions may be twisted and used against them. When we met with Barb, we immediately began gathering information to disprove the allegations against her. In our research, we even discovered that Board members themselves had posted some pretty interesting stuff online.” “This case took nearly a year to resolve,” says Walters, “but Mike was diligent and thorough and did a lot of background work. He made sure everything was done on time, he was conscious of every deadline, and he stayed in constant contact about what was happening. As devastating as this all felt, once I had CEA by my side, a weight was lifted off of me. It also helped that I had the support of my family and former students, many of whom rallied for me.” One of Walters’ former students circulated a petition against the teacher’s five-day suspension. More than 550 supporters signed on, and 225 posted personal tributes to Walters online, attesting to her stellar record as a teacher. In addition to her work in the classroom, Walters often took on additional commitments to her students, including establishing a Class Night Promotion Ceremony for sixth-graders, chaperoning field trips and school dances, supervising after-school math clubs, creating and supervising a Yearbook Club, running after-school sports clubs, coaching girls basketball and softball, and securing funding for a program called From Seed to Table, turning waste into compost for the school greenhouse, which grew food for the school cafeteria. Lessons learned “The Board of Education did not weigh mitigating factors, and they failed on multiple levels to satisfy the requirement of just cause,” Casey said. “The degree of the penalty should be in keeping with the seriousness of the offense. In this case, if the Board really had a problem, a simple conversation would have been more than adequate to address whatever concerns they might have had. Imposing any discipline—let alone bypassing two levels of progressive discipline, verbal and written reprimand, for a teacher with an impeccable work record— was not warranted.” Indeed, the case went to arbitration, and the arbitrator found no evidence of any disruption of classroom activity, which was the standard in the Board’s social networking policy. What’s more, the Board’s policy regarding social media was determined to be too vague to provide teachers with any meaningful notice of what’s prohibited. Ultimately, Walters’ five-day suspension was overturned and all references to it removed from her files. Her lost wages for that period were repaid. “The arbitrator found that the Board did not meet its burden of proof to establish just cause,” Casey said. “This was a great decision for us.” He cautions, however, that teachers need to be extremely careful about what they post online and who has access to it. “What they may think is private rarely is, and it can create serious disciplinary issues.” “We talk to at least one teacher a week who has come into harm’s way for using social media,” says Adrienne DeLucca, CEA legal counsel. “Get to know your school’s policies, and be sure you’re clear on what’s allowed and what’s prohibited. Teachers are seen as role models, so everything they do— whether it’s at work or on personal time—can be scrutinized. Maintaining respect and the public trust is key.” If you do face allegations of misconduct, talk to your building rep, local Association president, or CEA UniServ Rep first. “Never assume you’re safe,” Walters cautions other teachers, both veterans and those new to the classroom. “I don’t care how good a relationship you have with your administration, if you find yourself facing a possible disciplinary action, have a union rep with you—even if you’re not sure. My local Association president immediately advised me on key things and put me in touch with Mike Casey. Every district with someone like that is lucky. These are people who love the profession and are committed to protecting teachers and their rights.” Know your responsibilities PRACTICAL TIPS FOR SOCIAL MEDIA FROM CEA’S LEGAL TEAM Set strict privacy settings so that only your friends can see your photos and posts. Be cautious about those you accept or invite as friends on social networks. Do not friend or share posts with students or their parents. Limit the amount of personal information you share. Create a separate account if you are using social media for educational purposes or classroom lessons—keeping your professional and personal lives separate. Do not post on personal networking sites during work hours. Do not use a school computer to post. Rules may be more restrictive when teachers are using district-issued computers or the post is transmitted using the district’s server. Even posts made on privately-owned devices (smartphones) using the school’s Wi-Fi connection can be traced. Do not post negative or offensive comments about your job, your administrator, your school, or your students or their families. Check your social media profile and delete any inappropriate or questionable images, status updates, or communication dealing with alcohol, explicit sexual matters, violence, or vulgar language. Do not send confidential information through social networks. Always be skeptical and cautious. Only post information you are comfortable with anyone seeing. Do not post anything that could be considered harassing, discriminatory, or malicious. Respect copyright and other intellectual property laws. When 37-year veteran teacher Barbara Walters was suspended without pay, CEA fought back. Walters’ suspension was overturned and wiped from her record, and her lost wages were repaid. If you face allegations of misconduct, talk to your building rep, local Association president, or CEA UniServ Rep first.