In April of 2014, a story about a 79 year old substitute teacher, Carol Thebarge, went viral on social media sites. Thebarge had worked in the school system for 35 years before getting into some major trouble. She broke the rules. She had befriended thousands of students on the social media website, Facebook, and violated the school policy on student/teacher interactions outside the classroom. Many of the students had come to her for advice on bullying, while others simply befriended her because of her presence in the school. She was clearly well-intended; however, she was breaking the rules.
The problem with Thebarge’s Facebook interactions with students is that the interactions violated a school policy which banned teachers from interacting with students in social media sites outside the classroom. The school had asked Thebarge to delete students from her Facebook account a few years prior to her final ultimatum to give up the Facebook friends or to quit. She didn’t have the heart to delete them when she started getting messages from students asking why she was deleting them. Rather than telling them that the school policy forbids social interactions with students outside the classroom and that the policy is in place for a good reason, she continued to violate the rule.
What’s concerning is that Stevens High, the school which had given Thebarge the ultimatum, was in the midst of having disciplined another teacher, Christopher LeBlanc, for having inappropriate sexual relations with students as young as 14 years old. The rule about interacting with students outside the classroom clearly was not intended to keep wise substitute teachers from caring for their students in meaningful ways; however, such a rule is necessary to prevent any form of inappropriate relationships between students and teachers.
Allowing Ms. Thebarge to have broken the rule creates the potential for other teachers to have inappropriate relationships with their students. If she can do it, why can’t I? An inappropriate relationship may not only be sexual, but it could be academic. Is it possible for teachers to offer test answers to some students but not others? Is it possible for some teachers to discriminate against some students on social networking sites? The answer is yes, if even inadvertently. A rule is in place to keep situations fair. No teacher can do it, otherwise, subjective allowances breed discrimination. If the school were to allow her to violate the policy, the question begs, what exactly is it that makes this teacher seem trustworthy enough to do something you might not want another teacher to do?
An updated policy that more specifically addresses student-teacher relationships on social networking sites would have been acceptable; however, rather than breaking the rule, one should act to change the rule. Carol Thebarge had been breaking the school rules for years, yet only now that she is being forced to quit is there a public outcry for an updated policy. Petitioners at Change.org are seeking to have the school policy updated to reflect the professional relationship that exists under the name “friend” on social networking sites such as Facebook. Had Ms. Thebarge written the appropriate school officials when she was originally asked to delete the students off her Facebook page to re-write the policy, or had she attempted to create a professional page that would fit the guidelines more clearly, she may not have been facing this ultimatum in the wake of a unfortunate circumstance that happened with another teacher.