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Ex-teacher learns the hard way: Watch what you put online

Elizabeth Collins lost her job at Academy of Notre Dame de Namur after  blog post about the “annoyance” she felt over a student’s assignment. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
Elizabeth Collins lost her job at Academy of Notre Dame de Namur after blog post about the “annoyance” she felt over a student’s assignment. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)Read more

Elizabeth Collins has blogged for more than two years about her personal life and experiences as a teacher.

One Saturday in February, she posted her thoughts about a student's presentation in her English class at the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur, an all-girls private school in Villanova. She criticized its tone and political outlook.

The student's parents took quick exception to that post, telling the school that even though the blog did not identify their daughter by name, it was aimed at her and was an "attack on a child."

The exchange triggered a chain of events that ended with the academy's dismissing Collins in late April. "You have demonstrated a willingness to engage in inflammatory actions and have made a problematic situation worse," her termination letter said.

Collins said she merely used the incident to make a point about teaching methods, but ended up being singled out for her political views.

"I did nothing wrong at any time," she wrote to the school, defending her actions.

The situation illustrates the potential pitfalls of education blogging. When teachers write about their jobs, personal narrative can collide with expectations of student privacy.

It's "an area that we're just beginning to get our arms around," said Stuart Knade, chief counsel of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. "The limits of what should be our business and what is not still are not clear, and probably won't be for years."

Perhaps that's why the Pennsylvania State Education Association says on its website that teachers should not blog about their "job duties, colleagues, supervisors, or students."

Mandy L. Fleisher, a PSEA staffer who gives workshops about blogging, said, "We recommend that people be safe rather than sorry."

Others don't go that far, but Chris Lehmann, principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and a blogger, said he liked guidelines set down by a fellow education blogger, which include: "If you wouldn't say it in a faculty meeting or yell it down the hallway during a passing period, perhaps you need to rethink posting it."

In private schools in particular, free expression can also clash with a school's desire to protect its image and to respond to the concerns of the parents who pay the tuition.

Just where that line should be drawn became an issue when Collins, 39, in her fifth year of teaching high school courses at the academy, posted a piece on her blog on Feb. 20.

Collins says her posts never identify her school or anyone from it, though she does give her name and occupation. That day she wrote about a recent classroom assignment in which each student was to give a speech that advocated a point of view but did so in a conciliatory manner. She had told her students to use Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address as a model, she wrote.

"One thing I told my students is not to gloat, not to strike a hostile tone in their speeches," she wrote on "Then, of course, I heard a speech that did both of those things."

Collins added that she felt "annoyance" because she disagreed with the politics of the speech and "dismay" that her message about the right tone was not getting through.

(Though she never said so on her blog, in an interview Collins said that the student had given a speech about "Obama's lies." She provided The Inquirer with copies of documents from the school and the family about the events leading to her firing, and her responses.)

In Collins' post, she responded to the speech by writing one of her own, saying she was "modeling" the correct approach to the assignment. Her piece encouraged students to move "beyond knee-jerk joining of their parents' political party, and not become one-issue voters, to open their minds and consider the ramifications of their votes."

The essay criticized many George W. Bush administration policies and defended the Obama administration.

The next day, Collins received an e-mail from the student's parents, James J. White IV and Megan White. Saying there "may be some mix-up with the tone of your blog and the actual class that you are teaching," they requested a conference and asked, "If this had been an overly liberal paper, would our daughter have been the subject of your blog?"

Their e-mail also questioned two previous, unrelated incidents in Collins' class. "Earlier in the year, we did let the comment go about marriage and the taking of your husband's last name," though it was an "unnecessary comment to make to the girls and had little or nothing to do with English," it said. "Later, we were all exposed to your very strong feelings about the health-care proposal. . . . Another platform that neither of us felt was necessary for the classroom."

Collins said in an interview that she had told her students why she had kept her maiden name after they asked, and added, "I just feel like health-care reform is such an innocuous issue - it's not abortion."

Collins responded to the Whites by e-mail that afternoon, saying she would take down the post but adding that their e-mail "feels to me like an overreaction, and I am very upset about it." She ended by saying, "I will have my lawyer present for any future meeting."

The Whites contacted the school that evening, calling the blog an "attack on a child" and asking, "Are we to believe that Academy of Notre Dame provides a safe environment for young girls to express their views?"

Things got worse from there.

In a Feb. 24 posting, Collins wrote about unfounded accusations that teachers can face. Referring to the Whites' e-mail - without naming names or spelling out the context - she added, "I realized I was dealing with some hard-core provincialism - not to mention intolerance of anything but ultraconservative views."

Collins was crossing swords with prominent members of the local Catholic community. In 2009, James White received the Sourin Award from the Catholic Philopatrian Literary Institute for exemplifying Catholic ideals. (Cardinal Justin Rigali was given the award the year before.) He is also a trustee on several Catholic school boards, and James and Megan White and his construction company, J.J. White Inc., are donors to several Catholic schools, including Notre Dame de Namur.

In response to questions from The Inquirer, the Whites declined to comment specifically about the incident. They said it was a "personal matter involving our daughter, and we do not wish to comment on it in the public media."

Notre Dame president Veronica Harrington said in a written response: "We do not comment on personnel matters or matters regarding students, out of respect for their privacy. All of our actions are governed by our mission, which promises that we will protect the privacy of the children in our care."

At a March 3 meeting attended by school officials, Collins, the Whites, and their daughter, all agreed that Collins would not blog about the daughter and that the school would "take appropriate internal remedial action," according to a letter to the school written by A. James Johnston, an attorney for the Whites.

The school showed the document to Collins and she wrote a reply in which she said that at the March 3 meeting, the Whites had "proceeded to harangue me, raising their voices, pointing at me, slapping the table." She added that James White had demanded her resignation and threatened to sue the school.

In a March 4 blog post, Collins wrote about a fictional encounter between a "Mr. Bratwurst" and "Miss Petunia Fluffyglow" that included remarks similar to ones she said James White made to her at the meeting the previous day.

Notre Dame principal Joseph F. D'Angelo reprimanded Collins on March 19. He said in a letter that her Feb. 20 blog reference to " 'a student' rather than the more generic 'students,' not to mention the threat of a lawyer, had exacerbated the situation," and added that by her continued references to the matter in her posts, "you have put yourself and the school in jeopardy."

In April, Collins was suspended, then she was fired on April 19. The school has no specific guidelines on blogging, but in a letter to Collins, it said she had violated faculty policies and procedures and the ethics code, "which specifies that the academy is committed to treating our students and parents fairly."

Her termination letter said she had "engaged in improper communications with academy staff and former staff members about your dispute with the Whites."

Collins maintains that she was the target of an unjustified attack by the Whites that was largely motivated by what she called in one e-mail to the school their "clear political intolerance" toward her views.

She also said she thought the school had failed to "take a stand" against what she called "bullying" by the Whites.

The Whites, though not answering Collins' statements specifically, wrote in an e-mail that they "deny the allegations made by Ms. Collins."

Collins continues to blog. In a May 5 post, she reflected back on her years as a teacher.

"I realized the magical moments that come with teaching - when you connect with students, when they get it, when you see the admiration and inspiration in their eyes," she wrote.

But she added: "Teachers in private schools? They're often sitting ducks and no one has their backs."

In an interview, Collins said she was not sure she wants to return to the profession. "I feel so vulnerable," she said. "If something this weird can happen, I'm not sure that I want to do it again."