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Facebook friend or high school principal? Students can't be sure

May 09, 2012|By Matt Pearce
  • A school principal is resigning over "a fundamental dispute concerning the appropriate use of social media."
A school principal is resigning over "a fundamental dispute concerning… (Getty Images )

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Attention, students: If someone you don't know tries to friend you on Facebook, ask yourself whether it might actually be your high school principal.

Consider "Suzy Harriston." Her profile picture showed only penguins, and a bunch of students friended her despite having no idea who Suzy was.

Then came the warning:

"Whoever is friends with Suzy Harriston on Facebook needs to drop them," a former Clayton, Mo., football player wrote on April 5, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "It is the Clayton Principal."

He wouldn't say how he knew, but the account — which had more than 300 friends despite no record of any person by that name at the school or in Missouri — soon disappeared. The next day, the School District of Clayton announced that principal Louise Losos was taking a leave of absence.

School officials have refused to answer questions about the absence, but a legal agreement between Losos and the school district says she'll resign effective June 30 over "a fundamental dispute concerning the appropriate use of social media." Further, Losos will get a $140,000 settlement that prevents her or the district from suing each other over the termination.

That settlement — the equivalent of a year’s pay and benefits for Losos — includes no answer as to whether Losos created the fake account. It binds the school and the principal to confidentiality regarding what happened.

"I feel like it's a violation of our privacy that she was trying to, like, falsely friend us as someone else,” senior Andrea Hermann told St. Louis NBC affiliate KSDK-TV. “It makes me uncomfortable." Hermann's mother, Annie Lazarus, added: "I think that all the parents and all the students are entitled to know exactly what happened, and this whole shroud of secrecy should be gone.”

They shouldn’t hold their breath. School district spokesman Chris Tennill told the Los Angeles Times that state policies allow the district to be only “very limited in the comments that we can make and the details that we can provide.” All he would say was that there had been a disagreement over social media.

"A lot of times, you’ll have situations with district personnel that you’re not able to really release a lot of the details or a lot of information, so your school community is challenged to move on or move forward with the limited amount of information that’s available,” he said.

More information would probably be useful. The resignation comes as Americans are trying to figure out just how much of their social media profiles they want private, while many powers-that-be — law enforcement agencies, employers, school officials — are trying to figure out how much monitoring they can get away with. Prosecutors in New York have been grappling with Twitter and an Occupy Wall Street demonstrator over whether it can subpoena his tweets, and the U.S. House of Representatives is considering legislation that would ban employers from asking for social-networking passwords.

Officials in Missouri have struggled to draw the line between too much and too little information. Last year, the state Legislature controversially banned social media contact between teachers and students before a revised law required all school boards to draw up their own social media policies by March 1.

The Clayton school district adopted a policy in February that allows teachers to use social media to contact students, but which “discourages staff members from communicating with students electronically for reasons other than educational purposes.”

If Losos did create a fake account to monitor her students, is surveillance considered an “educational purpose”? At minimum, such an account would violate Facebook policies that bar users from using false names.

The controversy could be interpreted as the result of an ambiguous social-media policy whose particulars were about to get hashed out in court. "The parties hereto wish to enter in this settlement agreement in order to avoid protracted and expensive litigation and resolve all differences and disputes between them," the settlement agreement read.

Coincidentally or not, the fake-account drama was tied to a controversy involving another school employee who lost his coaching job over inappropriate student contact and then lost his teaching job a year later.

Former Clayton High School football coach Sam Horrell — who was accused last year of breaching Missouri State High School Activities Assn. rules by including middle-school students in strength and conditioning workouts — lost his teaching contract on the same day the former student accused Losos of having the fake account, according to the Post-Dispatch.

Several students who had voiced their support of the former coach via a Facebook group had received friend requests from the stranger, Suzy.

"A group of penguins trying to add me [sic] and I denied the friend request," junior Jonah Lindblad told KSDK, who also added that he didn't know what to make of the whole mess. "I have no idea what to say because I really have not been given any appropriate amount of information."

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