In a recent Illinois Appellate Court ruling, the Court reversed a school district’s termination of a teacher for her personal social media activities. Kelleher v. ISBE.
After a parent raised concerns about a teacher’s Facebook posts about her students, the school district investigated the teacher’s social media page (which was publicly visible), and placed the teacher on paid leave while it discussed disciplinary options. After settlement negotiations were unsuccessful, the school district terminated the teacher, identifying 16 charges against her, including her Facebook posts which the district claimed violated the school’s social media policy.
The teacher then requested a hearing, and the hearing officer upheld a number of the charges, including the teacher’s violation of the school’s social media policy and confidentiality of student information. The hearing officer found that the teacher had done the following on her public Facebook page: (1) made unprofessional, inappropriate, and disparaging remarks about students; (2) discussed her interactions with students; (3) disclosed her communications with parents; and (4) declared that she would share her parent communications with other individuals. The hearing officer found that, although the teacher did not refer to any of the students or parents by name, she did make references to specific incidents and problems. The hearing officer concluded that the teacher’s “inappropriate Facebook posting” was not remediable conduct. The hearing officer rejected many of the school district’s other charges.
The school board accepted the hearing officer’s findings of facts and recommendation to dismiss the teacher for cause, and affirmed the teacher’s dismissal for cause based on the sustained charges. The teacher then filed suit in circuit court to challenge her termination, which upheld the board’s dismissal of the teacher.
On appeal, the Appellate Court held that “despite the inappropriateness of the plaintiff’s Facebook posts and the problems that potentially could have occurred from them,” the teacher was entitled to the statutory written warning from the school board before being dismissed based on this conduct. The Court also found that the evidence presented to the hearing officer did not demonstrate that the teacher’s posts had caused any damage or injury at the time the school district discovered them and that a warning at that time could have have enabled the teacher to delete the posts and make her Facebook account private before the posts were seen by any students or other parents or community members. As a result, the Appellate Court reversed the school board’s decision to terminate the teacher.