Explicit tweet from teacher's account sparks student editorial
September 13, 2013
In mid-August, a photo of a hand and a breast was posted from the Twitter account of an eighth-grade teacher at Atlantic Middle School. Within minutes, the image had been retweeted by alumni following Marnie Leiferman, and screenshots were quickly distributed to students throughout the district.
Despite inquiries from students and parents alike, the district administration remained silent on the subject, prompting Atlantic High School seniors and school newspaper editors Sierra Smith, Lillie Zablocki and Meghan Plambeck to pen an editorial on the lack of action that posted to the website of the AHS Needle earlier this week.
District superintendent Dr. Michael Amstein said Thursday afternoon that an investigation determined the account had been "compromised." Leiferman did not respond to Daily Times Herald requests for comment.
"It was pretty provocative, I didn't like it," said Smith of the tweet. "Personally, what bothered me the most was that nobody was saying anything to us. We heard all the rumors, but nothing was being done that we knew of. We talked to them (administrators), but they didn't actually address the students or community, and I feel like they should have."
Zablocki agreed, calling the Twitter incident "disheartening," and saying that simple confirmation from district officials that there was an investigation would have gone a long way.
"I was upset by the lack of response from higher authorities in the school," she said. "We know now that they were holding an investigation, but people who weren't the three Needle editors writing the story wouldn't have."
Though he would not officially confirm or deny that Leiferman was the teacher, district superintendent Amstein said that her involvement with the tweet was "common knowledge." He said that the employee indicated that someone had "invaded" the Twitter account and "posted inappropriate content." The account is now locked down under privacy settings.
Amstein confirmed that an investigation was conducted into the origin of the tweet, first at the building, then at the district level, and said that no evidence was found proving the employee's claims false. Amstein also said that disciplinary action had been taken for the incident, but due to the confidentiality of the proceedings, he could not say what that disciplinary action entailed.
According to Amstein, there were "legal factors" constricting the school district of which the students were unaware. He added that no comment on the investigation or incident has been made at this time, and he would just "leave it at that."
Rob Cordes, superintendent of the Carroll Community School District, said that the procedure would have been similar had the incident occurred in his district. There would be an investigation, and the details of any disciplinary action, which could range from a written reprimand to termination, would be kept confidential. However, if the investigation determined the teacher's account had been compromised, Cordes said, the district would make a statement.
"We'd give anyone, students, staff, whoever, due process. If the account was compromised, you can hardly discipline someone for that. It does happen, with social media, with credit cards, with a lot of things," he said. "If it was a compromised account we would make a statement about what happened, that it was a regretful situation and the employee didn't do it, and probably leave it at that," he added, acknowledging that he didn't know the details of the Atlantic incident so he couldn't comment directly on it.
One reason Zablocki wanted to write the editorial was to stem the flow of rumors throughout the district. Though she couldn't confirm if any of Leiferman's own students had seen the tweet live, she said that many had seen screenshots or were at least aware of it.
"As a journalist I feel our role is not always covering the good side of things, but things we feel aren't right we cover as well," Zablocki said. "There was a lot of talk around the school between students, and adults as well, because we heard nothing from the administration. We hoped a push from a few journalists might clear up some of that talk."
The district also held a student assembly last year on the vices of poor online conduct. Zablocki and Smith felt it hypocritical of the district to discourage conduct in one quarter but not reprimand it in another.
"The assembly talked specifically about sending nude pictures, or anything you would regret, and that, once you send it, it's gone," said Zablocki. "We're taught these guidelines, that we have this technology in our hands and need to know how to handle it. Then something like this happens with a teacher, and students, correctly so, get confused."
The students said that they did not face any pressure not to write the editorial. However, Smith, who had Leiferman as a sixth-grade teacher, was disappointed that she declined to give the Needle an interview.
"I respect her so much," Smith said. "I loved having her as a teacher, and I have the biggest respect for her. I think that's why I wanted to talk to her so much."
According to Smith and Zablocki, Twitter has become increasingly popular as a tool among students and teachers in Atlantic schools over the past year, particularly in the English and journalism departments. It is not uncommon for teachers to contact students or send them an article to read via the online platform.
Amstein said the board does not usually review social-media accounts when considering a new hire. Though there currently appears to be no clear social-media policy in place, students and administrators agree the issue will soon have to be addressed.
"With the growth in social media, it's one of those things that will probably continue to impact schools, unfortunately," said Amstein.
Smith said she hopes this incident prompts the administration to take a closer look.
"It can be a good thing," she said "I think it's great that teachers tweet updates at us, and I hope they can figure something out so we can still use it and it not be a negative thing."
Cordes said that he couldn't recall any social-media incidents in the Carroll district involving either students or staff. To his knowledge, it is not common for teachers and students to interact on social media, adding that text messaging between students and coaches is far more prevalent. Though the district has no specific social-media policy, online conduct is addressed in the district's appropriate-use policy. While social-media review of job candidates is not "standard operating procedure," Cordes said, it does occasionally happen.
Cordes, who is active on Twitter, said he wouldn't be surprised if an explicit social-media policy is developed in the future. He said that he primarily uses his account as a professional-networking tool to promote school business and "brag" about the students.
"There are a lot of good resources there. That's what I've been trying to get across to our staff," he said. "As with any technology, it comes down to using good judgment."