MySpace related headlines for students and educational organizations continue, this time the headline concerns a 27 year old college student seeking teacher certification. The headline from May 6th reads, “Woman denied degree over photo, sues university.” According to the accompanying CNN video, the student was serving as a student teacher when her cooperating teacher saw a captioned photo on her MySpace account referring to herself as a “drunken pirate.” She was banned from returning to the school to complete her student teaching, and upon graduation her “education degree” was changed to an “English degree.”

It will be interesting to follow this case and see what the judge rules. It seems dishonest and questionable for the university to award an English degree instead of an education degree to this student, if indeed she fulfilled all the requirements for an education degree. I am not sure what the standard for reasonable actions on the part of the university are in this case, however. It seems the student should have some due process rights, and apparently she did appeal the decision to the university unsuccessfully, but I am interested to know what the college’s reasonable range of actions are in denying someone teacher certification based on a MySpace photo are.

According to this story, the only thing which suggested this student engaged in inappropriate behavior was a photo caption. The photo itself did not show the student drinking alcohol. Did the student have a previous police record of public intoxication convictions? The student is 27 years old, so is above the legal drinking age. According to an April 30th article in the Chicago-Sun Times about the incident, the student

was accused of promoting underage drinking.

This seems like a stretch. Certainly certifying Colleges of Education don’t want to see articles in the local newspaper of their pre-service teacher candidates guzzling beer at frat parties, but where is the line drawn for this standard for behavior for pre-service teachers? Is the college going to inspect the MySpace, Facebook, and other social networking sites of all its teacher candidates and search for any type of photo that mentions or includes alcohol in any shape or form? Or, is the college going to only act when a cooperating teacher chooses to report photos s/he finds inappropriate? If students over the age of 21 are photographed with any type of shirt or hat including a logo of a beer company and that photo appears on the web, will that also be considered grounds for dismissal from a teacher education program? Are teacher candidates required to refrain from any type of public drinking of alcohol, whether photographed on MySpace or seen in a public restaurant drinking a glass of wine or beer? That may be the operational standard and expectation in some communities, but is that a legally defensible standard?

All of this will likely fall under the auspices of the “professional behavior” expectation for the college of education in question. Should all teacher candidates delete all photos from their social networking websites immediately? I’m not sure. It seems likely, however, that we’ll continue to see more headlines like this one in the future. If you are a teacher or a teacher-candidate, it would be a good idea to make sure you (or your friends) aren’t sharing photos online that could be considered “unprofessional” by someone else. Those photos could cost you your job, just as (at least for now) one appears to have cost this student her education degree and teaching credential.

If this student (Stacy Snyder) truly was promoting underage drinking and demonstrating unprofessional behavior which made her unworthy of earning a teacher credential, perhaps the university’s actions would be understandable. Based on the facts of the case as they are presented in the media to date, however, it appears that the university may have overreacted. Stacy’s action in filing a lawsuit and suing the university for $75,000 may be her only course of action to seek a remedy for what appears to have been an overreaction on the part of college officials. Instead of denying her credential and changing her degree to English, it seems reasonable that the college could have counseled her in private to delete this one offending photo and be careful in the future not to post or even caption photos which could create a perception of “unprofessional behavior” on her part.

The Millersville University’s public statement on this lawsuit includes the following sentence:

The University notes, however, that all of its educational decisions are based on a full range of academic performance issues, not solely on a student’s personal website or social networking site.

If Stacey earned a bachelor’s degree in education and not English, then she certainly should be awarded the degree she earned. If “other academic performance issues” weighed into this decision, then those facts should come out in the court case. I am uncertain if the judge in this case will be able to rigidly define a boundary of “professional behavior” as it relates to photos on MySpace and other social networking websites. Clearly there should be some limits on the subjectivity with which university officials can take away earned bachelor’s degrees and deny teacher certification eligibility based on photos and photo captions which appear on the Internet.

At the same time, however, everyone in education (students, teachers, and teacher-candidates alike) should remember that perception generally defines reality, and it is advisable to take a more conservative approach when sharing photos and information on social networking websites anyone can theoretically access.

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