By Marisa Gerber
1:29 PM PST, January 22, 2013
When an Ohio middle school teacher posted a picture of her students' mouths masked with duct tape on her Facebook page last fall, she meant it as a joke, if a bit of an ill-conceived one -- “Finally found a way to get them to be quiet!!!” she quipped.
The Akron Public School District, whose board voted last week to take the first step in the process of firing Melissa Cairns, did not agree with her lighthearted sentiment.
Another district employee spotted the picture, which depicted about eight students with tape over their mouths, and tipped off a supervisor, according to a release from the school district. Cairns was placed on paid leave in mid-October.
A segment of the district’s policy labeled “social media use” warns that an employee’s personal use of sites like Facebook could trigger “unintended consequences.”
The policy continues: “While the Board respects its employees' First Amendment rights, those rights do not include permission to post inflammatory comments that could compromise the District's mission, undermine staff relationships, or cause a substantial disruption to the school environment.”
So, for three months, as the district conducted an internal investigation, Cairns waited.
“She’d been waiting in limbo and not sure what was going on,” said Jeff Moats, president of the Akron Education Assn., the local teachers union. “She really wants to get back to teaching. She wants to get back to the classroom.”
On Jan. 16, Cairns received a letter informing her that the board had voted to pursue her termination and that she had 10 days to request a hearing with a referee or the district would vote on whether to fire her at its next board meeting.
The union’s attorney filed an appeal on Tuesday, Moats said, arguing that “the offense didn’t rise to the level of termination.” Because of her appeal, the board will not vote on the issue next week as had been scheduled.
Cairns, who started working in the district in 2007, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment, but told an Ohio news station she “made a bad mistake of thinking it was funny and posting it on Facebook.”
She added, however, that the incident began after she gave one of her students duct tape to fix her binder. The student took the tape and put it on her mouth, Cairns told the station, adding that other student then passed the tape around the room, taped their mouths and encouraged her to take the picture.
“Do I think this one stupid mistake should cost me the last 10 years of all the good I’ve done?” Cairns said. “Absolutely not.”
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