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Legal Aspects of Education: Personal opinion in the Professional sphere of Education

Throughout all of my years as a student, from Preschool through the 12th grade, I always looked up to my teachers.  They were my role models—I wanted to be just like them.  In fact, my fourth grade teacher is the one person who inspired me to become a teacher myself and to help make a difference in other children’s lives.  In my opinion, along with being an educator a teacher should act as a positive role model for their students.  The actions of a teacher both inside and outside of the school environment shape teachers and define them both professionally and personally.  To me, a positive role model is one who respects others differences, appreciates multiple points of view, and acts with conservative behavior during and after school.  According to the textbook, “Teachers’ behaviors were closely scrutinized because communities believed they should be exemplars—that is, examples to their students of high moral standards and impeccable character…” (Ornstein, Levin, & Gutter, 2001, p. 269). “School district policies generally still require that teachers serve as positive role models.” (Ornstein, Levin, & Gutter, 2001, p. 270).  Although school policies vary from state to state, the issue of equality is and has always been a longstanding pillar upon which the United States and our Constitution was founded.  It is with those beliefs that I think a teacher should never discriminate against any particular group of students or people. 

When browsing the Internet for recent issues in education, I didn’t really know where my search would lead me.  Using the provided links, I was able to search through tons and tons of articles and the few articles that caught my attention had to do with the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and expression.

The first headline read: “New Jersey High School Teacher Posts Anti-Gay Entry on Facebook.”  Being the kind of person who looks up to teachers to set a positive example, I was a little bit unsettled by the headline.  Because many of the legal aspects of education have to do with what can and cannot be said and expressed in the public school setting, I read on.  In short, a New Jersey teacher, Viki Knox, posted anti-homosexual comments on her personal Facebook page in response to her school displaying a board recognizing October as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History month.  She was quoted as posting: “homosexuality is a perverted spirit that has existed from the beginning of creation” and other comments regarding religion and homosexuality.  Also found on her Facebook were posts claiming that homosexuality was “against the nature and character of God” (Hu, 2011) and the school was “not the setting to promote, encourage, support and foster homosexuality.” (Hu, 2011)

In today’s day and age a huge equality movement in the United States has to do with preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation, especially in the public sphere, and it is no wonder this story received a lot of attention.

My question is that, whether or not one agrees with this New Jersey teacher’s point of view, is it appropriate for her to post comments discriminating against a particular group of people as a public school teacher?  Was her form of personal expression allowed under the First Amendment or can it be considered against new anti-bullying and discrimination laws?  In the article, John Paragano, a lawyer and former member of the Union Township Committee questioned the teacher’s ability to adhere to the new anti-discrimination law http://www.nj.gov/oag/dcr/employ.html: “Teachers are at the forefront of that, enforcing that (anti-bullying/discrimination laws)…my concern is that if this teacher has these feelings, is she going to call out the bullying of a gay, lesbian and transgender person?” (Hu, 2011) Also quoted in the article was Edward Barocas (legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New Jersey): “Although we do not agree with the sentiments expressed on Ms. Knox’s personal Facebook page, her beliefs and comments are protected by the First Amendment” (Hu, 2011). Mr. Barocas added, “Because her postings raised questions about her conduct within school, the school district can and should investigate whether she is performing her job in accordance with school policies and the state’s Law Against Discrimination” (Hu, 2011).

In my personal opinion, I agree with the statement by Mr. Barocas. I do believe that every citizen of the United States is entitled to his or her own opinion—what matters is how these discriminatory comments affect a teacher’s ability to be effective teachers and positive role models in the school environment. I feel that any derogatory comments, whether virtual or verbal, made about any person, place, or idea can negatively impact a student in a teacher’s classroom.  It could potentially and inadvertently teach students that it is okay to discriminate—however there is a fine line between expressing freedom of speech and discriminatory actions.  These situations are extremely difficult to deal with and must be approached with a delicacy.  Personal opinions and beliefs are not what determine how Viki Knox will be punished (or not punished) because of her actions.  It is through past court cases and each individual school board’s policy that determine the consequences.

As far as the legality of the situation, whether or not this particular teacher can be terminated because of personal comments on Facebook can be determined by looking over past court decisions about teachers and their personal freedom of expression.  The court considers many factors when determining if an expression by a teacher is protected under the US Constitution: they consider “the effects on school operation, teacher performance, teacher-superior relationships, and coworkers as well as the appropriateness of the time, place, and manner of the teacher’s remarks” (Ornstein, Levin, & Gutter, 2001, p. 267).  According to the National School Boards Association, “misbehavior outside the school that reduces teachers’ capacity to serve as positive role models can justify reprimands or dismissals as long as rights to free speech and free association are not violated.” (Ornstein, Levin, & Gutter, 2001, p. 270).

While the outcome of this case has yet to be determined, it is my belief that administration and school officials responsible for the outcome of this situation will pay close attention to whether or not her comments affect her performance as a teacher. How the public reacts to this situation will probably also affect the consequences against Viki Knox.  Just today, Gay rights activists protested  New Jersey Union school board meeting urging them to take action against the teacher (see link to article here). What if one of her students was homosexual or transgendered? What if a colleague or a parent of one of her students was also of different sexual orientation? Would she be able to effectively and fairly respond to situations that may arise with someone who is homosexual?  The answers to those questions cannot ever be determined, however the most important thing to consider about this situation is how a teacher’s comments affect their students and their opportunity to have a good and well-rounded education.  I think the best way for a teacher to be an effective educator and positive role model to his or her students is by maintaining values of respect and acceptance while constantly keeping in mind that personal beliefs could potentially be scrutinized and action could be taken if they affect school operations and job performance.

 

References:

Ornstein, A. C., Levine, D. U., & Gutek, G. L. (2011). Foundations of Education   (11th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Hu, Winnie. (2011, October 13). New Jersey High School Teacher Posts Anti-Gay Entry on Facebook. The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. Retrieved October 16, 2011, from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/14/nyregion/teachers-facebook-posts-against-homosexuality-are-questioned.html?_r=2&ref=education

http://www.nj.gov/oag/dcr/employ.html

http://www.aclu-nj.org/aboutus/leadership/

http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2011/10/gay_rights_activists_to_protes.html

~ by hgluchow on .

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