Teachers' Virtual Lives Conflict With Classroom

Teacher-to-be says she was denied credential because of online photos.


May 6, 2008— -- Stacy Snyder was weeks away from getting her teaching degree when she said her career was derailed by an activity common among many young teachers: posting personal photos on a MySpace page.

Snyder, then 27, claimed in a federal lawsuit scheduled to go to trial Tuesday that Millersville University refused to give her a teaching credential after school administrators learned of a photo on her MySpace page labeled "drunken pirate." She said school officials accused her of promoting underage drinking after seeing the photo, which showed Snyder wearing a pirate hat and drinking out of a yellow cup.

"I don't think it's fair," Snyder's father said. "She could have been a great teacher."

Snyder's lawyer, Mark Voigt, said he and Snyder would not comment until after the trial.

Millersville University claimed it would have refused to give Snyder a teaching degree even without the Web page, alleging unsatisfactory performance and unprofessional behavior.

But for a generation that came of age comfortable with the freewheeling, tell-all online culture, Snyder's case presents a cautionary tale that raises questions about the standards to which teachers -- and other young people in positions of responsibility -- should be held.

There are countless teachers with online profiles, many of them available to anyone with a Facebook or MySpace account. Some of those pages are, at times, racy, filled with jokes, photos and behavior some parents and administrators might view as unprofessional.

A random review of these sites by ABC News turned up many examples. One first-grade teacher listed among her favorite activities "dancing like an a**hole." A Teach for America teacher in New York showed pictures of several friends drinking beer on the subway. A high school teacher in Los Angeles prominently displayed photos of her lying on the beach in a bikini.

Those pages, similar to those of thousands of 20-somethings who grew up with their lives displayed online for all to see, can carry consequences. Teachers in several states have been suspended or fired for their online profiles, leading some school districts to begin crafting policies to regulate the virtual lives of their employees.

"What seems like fun when you're in college can be a real issue for teachers," said Nora Carr, a spokeswoman for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina, which is writing a policy for online behavior. "Especially for young teachers, the technology is second nature to them, but teachers are also considered role models."

In Snyder's case, she argued that Millersville violated her First Amendment rights. In court papers, Snyder, who graduated with an English degree, claimed that she was given good marks as part of a student teaching program at a local high school until school officials discovered her MySpace page.

School officials claim in court papers that Snyder was unprofessional throughout the semester, with Snyder's supervisor calling the photo the "straw that broke the camel's back." They allege that she lacked knowledge of the subjects she was teaching, was unable to manage her students and that parents complained about her teaching.

Snyder allegedly didn't intervene when students discussed drugs and drinking, administrators said. She had already been admonished to avoid corresponding with students on MySpace and conceded that a student had seen her Web site and that the cup in the picture contained alcohol, the school said.

"Millersville University is committed to serving our students and the children they will teach, and we are confident that the university will be vindicated in this case," the university said in a statement.

Most school districts are only beginning to consider official policies that specifically deal with sites like Facebook and MySpace, said Tom Hutton, a senior attorney with the National School Board Association.

"As a society, we're trying to deal with this on the fly," said John Green, head of school for the Peddie School, a New Jersey boarding school.

"Boundaries are important for teachers to maintain," he said. "The virtual world makes those boundaries more blurry. Sometimes people are less careful in maintaining boundaries over the computer than they are in their own classroom."

Teachers associations and some school district lawyers are warning new teachers to be careful what they put online.

Todd Fuller, of the Missouri State Teachers Association, said a school superintendent recently told him he asked aspiring teachers about their MySpace pages during job interviews.

"He had a teacher come in and asked her if she had a Facebook or MySpace page and she said yes, and he said would you be willing to have a look right now?" Fuller said. "If that would be an issue for you, you should take pause and consider what's on your page."

Credentialed teachers can generally be reprimanded for activity that disrupts the classroom in some way, said David Alexander, chairman of the Department of Educational Leadership at Virginia Tech.

Several teachers told ABC News that they restrict access to their Facebook and MySpace pages and would never allow their students to become their online friends.

"I worry about kids' ability to contextualize what they're seeing," said Alison Hogarth, who teaches ninth through 11th grade in New Jersey.

But other teachers have apparently not considered the consequences of their online behavior or aren't willing to change them.

Stephen Murmer was famously fired from his teaching job in Virginia after videos of him painting with his buttocks surfaced online. He settled a lawsuit against the school district last year.

Abby, a 23-year-old elementary school teacher in New York, described "excessive drinking" as a favorite activity on her Facebook page and had a "bumper sticker" that said "let's drink so much we hate ourselves in the morning."

As for Snyder, according to court papers, she wrote on her MySpace page that she was told "one of my students was on here looking at my page, which is fine. I have nothing to hide. I am over 21, and I don't say anything that will hurt me (in the long run). Plus, I don't think that they would stoop that low as to mess with my future. So, bring on the love!"

Eight days later, she was told she would be ineligible for a teaching certificate.