OHIO - An Ohio middle school teacher is fighting to keep her job after a photo was seen on her Facebook page showing students of hers with duct tape across their mouths. The Akron school board is considering whether to terminate her.
Melissa Cairns, a middle school math teacher at Buchtel Community Learning Center, has been on unpaid administrative leave after an Akron public schools worker noticed a photo posted on Facebook of a group of students with duct tape across their mouths. The caption on the photo: "Finally found a way to get them to be quiet!!!"
Jason Haas, president of the Akron Board of Education, said the case raises questions about students' privacy and social media.
"This is the start of my sixth year on the board. In that time, we haven't had a case come before us for potential disciplinary action for posting a picture to social media websites," said Haas. "Has she violated the students' privacy? That's what we're concerned about. Everyone seems to be focused on the duct tape."
Sarah Hollander, communications officer for Akron Public Schools, issued a statement describing the case:
"There were about 15 or 16 middle school students in the class. Eight or nine students put the tape on their mouths. Cairns took a photo and posted it on her personal Facebook page as a joke. The photo wasn't dated, but was likely taken in late September or early October 2012," said Hollander. "Principal Sonya Gordon asked Cairns to take the photo down. She also alerted parents of students in the class."
Cairns told ABC News affiliate WEWS-TV in Cleveland that she originally gave one of her students the tape to fix her binder. When the teacher handed the strip of tape to the student, Cairns said, she placed the piece of tape over her mouth and laughed. When the other students saw the girl laughing, they joined in. Next, students asked Cairns to snap a photo.
"Do I think that this one mistake should cost me the last 10 years of all the good I've done? Absolutely not," said Cairns. "When your emotions are involved, that's when you learn things."
On Jan. 22, Cairns requested a hearing take place to determine whether she can keep her job as a math teacher. She is entitled to present her case with a referee present. A date for the hearing has not been set.
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Haas told WEWS-TV that "students are protected under federal law and have certain protections." He said, "It would look like that potentially violates those protections."
But will this set a new precedent for the school board? Haas said it's difficult to determine.
"It comes down to how the board feels after the administration presents their case. We've gone with the teacher's side and there's other cases where we've gone with the administration's side," said Haas. "Nothing is cut and dry at all."
On Jan. 14, the seven-member board of education was given criteria to consider whether Cairns should be let go.
The 33-year-old teacher was put on paid administrative leave on Oct. 19. As of Jan. 15, she's been placed on an unpaid administrative leave. On Jan. 16, Cairns received a letter informing her of a possible firing. She was given 10 days to request a hearing before the board or a referee.
"Why was there duct tape in the classroom? How did they [the students] come to have access to it," said Haas. "We'll have these answers to these questions later."
Haas said he believes the hearing will likely be scheduled in late February.
Cairns was hired by Akron Public Schools in August 2007, and first came to Buchtel last August.