Bus driver sues, saying she was fired over Facebook post

Michele Threlkeld often checks her Facebook page to keep up with her friends' lives and share news about her own.

"I use it probably every day, just to stay connected with friends from high school and friends of my kids' friends and things like that," Threlkeld told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

But the 39-year-old bus driver had no idea she was risking her job with Buford City Schools when she posted a link to a local newspaper article in March. Threlkeld was shocked when administrators fired her on the last day of the 2009-10 school year -- an act she believes was in retaliation for the Facebook post.

Last week, Threlkeld sued the school district, Superintendent Geye Hamby and Transportation Director Brenda Brown. The lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Atlanta seeks unspecified damages, said her attorney George Weaver.

Gregory D. Jay, a lawyer for Buford City Schools, said "the District believes Ms. Threlkeld's accusations are untrue and baseless and represent an inaccurate portrayal of events and purported conversations."

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"We are confident that the judicial system will justly dispose of this matter," Jay added.

He said school system does not have a policy about employee's use of social media. Threlkeld's personnel file, which was provided to the AJC in response to an Open Records request, shows that she was fired for "lack of professionalism." The most recent performance review dated May 14, 2008, noted Threlkeld's performance was satisfactory in all areas.

Threlkeld said her relations with administrators turned sour over an article she posted from the Gwinnett Daily Post, along with the comment "today's humor."

The March 2 article stated the Buford City School District was planning to install artificial turf at Buford High School's football and band practice fields at a cost of $632,000. On the newspaper's website, some readers posted comments reproaching the school district for buying artificial turf when it was laying off teachers and staff.

A few days after she posted the link, Threlkeld was called into Hamby's office, according to the lawsuit. Threlkeld said Hamby scolded her about the posting, claimed she had humiliated him and the rest of the administrators, and asked her to remove the link from her Facebook page. Hamby also notified her that she had "put a big target on her back," Threlkeld said in her lawsuit.

Threlkeld said she removed the link and thought that was the end of the issue.

A few months later, the school system transportation director, Brown, handed Threlkeld a letter terminating her employment.

Threlkeld said the experience has been "very upsetting." She had been working for the district for eight years, and her two children also were enrolled there.

"I was very close with almost everybody in the system, even on a personal level," Threlkeld said.

Threlkeld said she never got to say goodbye to some of the students and parents with whom she had formed a bond, since she was fired on the last day of school after she finished her route. Threlkeld's two children also have had to change schools. The family lives outside city limits and cannot afford out-of-district tuition fees, she said.

Weaver said he is not aware of any policy the school system has concerning Facebook use. He said that Threlkeld was using the website on her own time. He believes that her speech was protected by the First Amendment.

"She felt like it was poor priorities on the part of the school administration to spend money on artificial turf for a practice field when staff were being laid off," Weaver said. "She has a right to her opinion."

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