A 13-year-old girl who called her teacher a pedophile online says her principal ordered her to log onto Facebook so she could read the offending post and ensuing responses by her friends.
The investigation by Douglas County school officials resulted in the suspension of Alejandra Sosa and two other Chapel Hill Middle School students. They could face harsher penalties, including banishment to a school for children with behavior problems, when they go before a tribunal March 10.
Alejandra told the AJC in an interview that included her mother Thursday that she regrets what she posted Feb. 17. She said she is drafting an apology to her teacher. She also said the school principal violated her privacy by taking her to a school library computer Monday and ordering her to log in to her Facebook account.
Principal Jolene Morris took over the keyboard and read what Alejandra and others had posted before ordering the student to delete the posts, Alejandra said.
Morris did not return a call and an e-mail seeking comment, and school system spokeswoman Karen Stroud said she did not know details about how school officials conducted their investigation.
Stroud did confirm that three students were suspended for making comments about a Chapel Hill teacher on Facebook, but had little else to say about the case. "Because of federal privacy protection law, we don't talk about students," Stroud said. "We certainly don't talk about specific students and their disciplinary situations."
Stroud referred a reporter to a portion of the school code that the children are accused of violating. It's a "level one" offense, the worst possible: "Falsifying, misrepresenting, omitting, or erroneously reporting" allegations of inappropriate behavior by a school employee toward a student.
Alejandra said she created the Facebook post because she was mad at one of her teachers. When she got home, she said, she wrote on the social networking site that the man was a pedophile.
It was a joke, she said.
The joke got out of hand when school officials somehow learned of the comment and other comments made in response by other students. The middle schoolers, among other things, called the teacher a rapist and claimed he had bipolar disorder, according to Alejandra and the parents of two of the other children who posted Facebook comments.
Alejandra's mother, Maria Sosa, said officials called her to the school Tuesday and offered her a choice between the expulsion of her daughter for the rest of the semester with enrollment in an "alternative" school, or a tribunal with potentially harsher consequences. She initially selected expulsion, but decided, like the parents of the two other children, to face the tribunal.
"I'm afraid for my daughter," Maria Sosa said. What her daughter did was wrong, she said. "I know that was not right, but she's 13 ... . The punishment is hard."
The parents of William Lambert, 12, and Taylor Tindle, 12, also said that what their children wrote was wrong, but they said they're good students and that time in a school for troubled children would derail their educations.
"This is too harsh," said Taylor's mother, Stephanie Lamb. Her daughter was wrong to write that the teacher was a pedophile, she said, but the punishment could ruin her future. "These kids are not going to be able to bounce back from being in alternative school. You might as well say, ‘Be in a gang and do drugs.'"
William's father, William Lambert, said the school principal violated his son's privacy by compelling the boy's friend, Alejandra, to give her access to her Facebook account. He said that's where the principal read that his son had called the teacher a rapist, something that William's father said his son does not really believe.
"They were joking," Lambert said. William and the other kids were wrong to write those comments, Lambert said. "I'm not fighting the words, I'm fighting do you bring the kid in and make her log into Facebook."
Lambert and Lamb said several other children commented about the teacher in the Facebook conversation, but faced lesser sanctions, such as a one-day suspension from school.
They and Alejandra said there were approximately two dozen posts by as many as 15 children.
The case could wind up in court. The parents have hired a lawyer to represent them at the tribunal, and say that if they lose -- and can muster more money for lawyers -- they'll appeal as far as they can take it.
The case could hinge on the word "reporting" in the school's code. Comments on Facebook are not considered to be private, according to one legal expert. The courts consider comments posted online to be published and therefore public, said Gerry Weber, an adjunct professor of civil rights at Georgia State University. Comments online are subject to the same libel laws that apply to newspapers and other media, he said.
But he said online comments are also protected by the First Amendment right to free speech and that school systems cannot punish students for off-campus speech unless it causes a "disruption" on campus. They can't sanction speech merely because they find it "distasteful," said Weber, a former legal director of the ACLU in Georgia. He also said that disparaging comments made by kids online could be construed in court as "hyperbole" rather than libel.
The popularity of Facebook among youths is so great that school sanctions stemming from student comments on the site have spawned lawsuits across the country, Weber said. "It's clearly a hot issue of litigation."
Weber said he's followed several similar cases and that he'd never heard of a student being expelled. "An expulsion is far in excess of anything I've seen," he said.
The outcome of Thursday's tribunal has Alejandra on edge. She's worried about life in a school for troubled kids.
"I'm an honor student and I haven't been in any fights," she said. "I think going to an alternative school would turn me into a different person who makes bad decisions, and I don't want to be like that."