Should teachers use Facebook to air their disagreements with parents? When does a teacher’s right to free speech cross the line? The growing use of social networking sites by teachers, parents and students raises some thorny questions.
A case in point is the slugfest going on in Havre de Grace over the controversial drama production known as Drama Therapy.
Drama Therapy was developed four years ago by teachers and guidance counselors at Havre de Grace High School as a series of short skits that are part drama, part therapy, and mainly written by students. The skits deal with serious issues facing some teens, such as suicide, incest and abortion, but they also include more light-hearted fare. The founders of Drama Therapy expected that some students would seek counseling as a result of seeing the skits. The idea was to help those students.
The skits comprising Drama Therapy changed each year, but somehow the 2009 production was never reviewed by the school principal, the Harford County Board of Education, or any of the layers of administrators in between. Nonetheless, Drama Therapy was shown to the Havre de Grace HS student body, at a school-wide assembly last December.
When parents started asking questions, the school system suddenly came up with the outlines of a plan to do in the future, what, everyone now seems to agree, should have been done in the first place. As a result, Drama Therapy isn’t going away, but it might not be shown during the school day and parents are going to be notified about the content and given the chance to opt-out of the presentation.
Enter Facebook, the social networking site where Drama Therapy was discussed by parents, students and alumni of Havre de Grace High. A page entitled “SaveDramaTherapy” was created after the dust-up became public, and an online petition to save the program was also circulated.
Joining in the Facebook discussions was Havre de Grace High School teacher and English Department Chair, Deb Cummins. Mrs. Cummins was among the founders of Drama Therapy, along with her husband, drama teacher Mark Cummins.
In an undated series Facebook posts, the subject turns to comments made about Drama Therapy in other media by State Delegate Rick Impallaria. Impallaria had reportedly called for staff to be fired and said in a letter posted on The Dagger that he believed Drama Therapy “abused” students.
Posting on a Facebook page, Mrs. Cummins expresses outrage over Impallaria’s remarks. Anger at public officials may be fair game. But Cummins then welcomes help from a Havre de Grace parent who tells Cummins “…if they want blood. I say let’s give them blood”. The parent adds that he is also calling for “a boycott of the businesses of those that started this entire mess.”
It was another Havre de Grace parent, Rachel Tate, who first asked to review the content of Drama Therapy, prompting Harford County Public Schools’ own belated review. Rachel Tate and her husband Chad are also business owners in Havre de Grace.
Deb Cummins doesn’t discourage the boycott, but thanks the parent instead, adding: “Mark is a wreck and God help those who cause anything to happen to him.” Later in the postings, Mrs. Cummins says: “Rachel is behind this, I am certain.”
Someone else adds: “Screw the Tate’s!”
Finally, a student tells Mrs. Cummins that she has his support, along with support from 600 other students. Cummins thanks the student and tells him, “They have gone way too far!”
Mrs. Cummins surely has the right to defend herself and her husband. At the time, she obviously feared for their jobs, not only because of Del. Impallaria’s remarks, but because she and her husband were on the front lines of a program that seemed well intentioned, but lacked proper oversight.
On the other hand, Facebook may not be the right place for teachers to vent. It sends a powerful message when a teacher thanks a parent who plans to fight with blood and boycotts; issues warnings to other parents whom she identifies as her adversaries; and puts it all in writing on the internet. Regardless of the venue, when professional educators involve parents and students in their disagreements with other parents, they can divide a community and create a terrible ripple effect.
Forget Drama Therapy. Imagine that you are a parent at another school, with questions about a different program. You might think twice before speaking up if you thought a teacher would identify you as a troublemaker on a social networking site and rally your neighbors against you, especially when your children have to continue going to school.
The Facebook postings in this case have reportedly been taken down. But as part of a March 9 letter, Delegate Rick Impallaria sent a copy of the postings to Harford Schools Superintendent Robert Tomback. Impallaria also included several comments posted here on The Dagger, although unlike the Facebook postings, the Dagger comments were anonymous. Impallaria says in his letter that policies are needed regarding school employees’ internet communications.
Harford County Public Schools spokesperson Teri Kranefeld didn’t immediately respond to a request from The Dagger for comment.
To be fair to HCPS, school policies may not have caught up with the technology. Or maybe the school system has no ability or no right to control what employees do outside of school.
But in a March 4 press release by HCPS, Superintendent Robert Tomback is quoted saying that he supports “with great conviction” the drama teachers at Havre de Grace High, concluding “…we are certain that their dedication to students will help pull the Havre de Grace community together to the greater benefit of the students and the school.”
At the very least, HCPS may want to reconsider that statement.
Here is a copy of the Facebook postings sent to Dr. Tomback by Delegate Impallaria, a copy of which was provided to The Dagger. The name of the student who posted on the Facebook page has been removed: