A conflict between a Kelso High School teacher and a senior student has something of “the dog ate my homework” flavor to it, but it poses a question about a rising concern in classrooms and courtrooms: How to honor students’ free speech rights while protecting teachers from cyberbullying.

Administrators kicked senior Maddison Cothren out of school just before winter break after she posted a Facebook message about a 20-year veteran teacher. The Dec. 19 post featured a photo of the teacher with a message, “I fail (some) students for no reason.”

The post ignited a social media firestorm that spilled over into the school, prompting Cothren’s punishment. She was reinstated as a Kelso High student on Dec. 21, but she now must take her classes through the district’s online academy because she’s still prohibited from stepping foot inside the school, she said.

Cothren, who is captain of the tennis team and was taking Running Start classes at Lower Columbia College, claimed the teacher “singled her out” for discipline. She says the teacher “lost” three of the assignments she turned in and refused to accept three other assignments because they were late. As a result, Cothren failed the class, making her ineligible for Running Start, which requires a 2.5 overall GPA and 3.0 in English.

“She’d kick me out of class, and I wouldn’t be able to turn (assignments) in. ... It was very unfair, though, because they were only late because she wouldn’t let me in the class to turn it in,” Cothren said, adding that her complaints to a counselor and the dean of students did not improve the situation.

“I was turning all my assignments in, and that’s when I started taking pictures of me turning them in,” Cothren said. “I’d show my counselor, and my counselor would try turning it in, but (the teacher) would say, ‘It’s too late now.’ ”

The Daily News is not identifying the teacher in this article to prevent further harassment, because by law she can’t speak about the case and because the dispute between her and the student is a private matter.

Cothren’s claims might seem far-fetched to some, and school officials cannot comment on the allegations because privacy laws bar the district from publicly discussing student discipline. The teacher also declined comment, adding to the difficulty of verifying Cothren’s story. But some of the teacher’s colleagues privately say she’s a quality educator who was hurt by the allegations and subsequent controversy, and they find Cothren’s claims implausible or plain false.

Superintendent Mary Beth Tack called the teacher a “highly respected and skilled veteran teacher within our district. ... She is involved in all aspects of education both inside and outside the classroom. Her contributions speak volumes to her level of commitment to Kelso students and their families.”

And even though Cothren says she has proof to support her claims, she is unable to produce all of it — including the photographs she said she took of herself turning in assignments.

What is known, though, is that the case shows how easily social media can ignite hostility on a matter that, in the days before the internet, may have been limited to just a student, parents, a teacher and the principal. It raises questions about how much students should be allowed to criticize faculty before comments cross a line into cyberbullying, and what the appropriate level of punishment should be when they do.

Swift punishment

On Dec. 20, the day after Cothren made her post, her father received a letter from the school principal stating that she could no longer attend Kelso High School.

Loman Cothren said this was his daughter’s “first time ever” getting in trouble at school.

“I knew from the beginning she just wasn’t getting along with this teacher, but I didn’t know it would ever end up this way,” he said. “And I did call Maddie as soon as I saw (the post) and told her to take it down,” which she did the day after posting it.

The letter explains that Cothren’s post violated the district’s code of conduct policy under the category of “harassment, intimidation or threats to school staff.” The student handbook lists this behavior as one “so serious in nature and/or so serious in terms of disruptive effect upon the operation of the school, that students may be subject to a long-term suspension for a first-time offense.”

“Kelso High School is an institution of learning, and Maddison’s exceptional misconduct has caused a disruption that will not soon be abated,” the letter reads. So school administrators decided to “no longer honor (Cothren’s) attendance at Kelso High School,” the letter says. (Cothren lives in Cathlamet with her father and attends Kelso High as a “choice” student, but she attended as a resident of the district until her senior year.)

“Maddison’s use of an electronic media as means of retribution towards a staff member for an unfavorable grade and/or disciplinary action and with the intent to negatively impact the educational environment, has led to this decision,” the letter says.

The action prodded her friends to start a petition seeking her reinstatement. The online form has more than 850 signatures, and a hard copy version has at least 200 more names, said Erika Griggs, one of the organizers of the effort.

“She didn’t threaten (the teacher), and it’s not fair that they are saying she did,” Griggs said, adding the post was “wrong, it was not OK, but it is not violent at all.”

The post and subsequent petition attracted ample attention online. Other students and community members flocked to the comment section to weigh in on Cothren’s claims — and add their own embellishments. Griggs said the petition became the “buzz of the hallway” at the school.

Several of the commenters on Cothren’s post shared their own allegations of personal conflicts with the teacher, occasionally using vulgar language. Some claims called into question the character of the teacher’s husband — a complaint Cothren didn’t make herself.

Other commenters defended the teacher.

“This isn’t even funny,” wrote one, later adding that “it just appears as if (Cothren is) making fun of the teacher, not being informative about it.”

‘Adding to the nasty’

It’s not uncommon for social media posts criticizing teachers to explode like this, said Mike Donlin, the state superintendent’s office program supervisor for school safety.

Cyberbullying often starts as “someone who just gets ticked off at the school, the classroom or something else, and they begin to … badmouth against that teacher and post it publicly,” Donlin said.

Then, their friends and followers reply and “add to the nasty,” Donlin said. Oftentimes, the comments are unrelated to the initial post, or the commenters don’t personally know the original target.

“Sometimes they are not even in the (same) state. They just happen to know someone who knows someone who knew someone that happened to see (the post) and jumped in to add their two cents,” Donlin said. “There are times when the initial post can be absolutely benign and it can be twisted or turned … or misinterpreted in the comments.”

The pre-Christmas uproar caused by the post was “highly disruptive during the school day,” Superintendent Tack said. She declined to elaborate, but she emphasized that one of the district’s leading criteria for determining the severity of a cyberbullying incident is how much it distracts from the “academic learning and teaching environment.”

“This was not social media policing on the part of Kelso High School,” Tack said of the Cothren case. “When social media negatively impacts and becomes disruptive to the educational environment within the school day, we will take the required steps to investigate and implement action when needed. It is our paramount duty to maintain a safe and secure learning environment for all students and staff, and we take threatening social media posts very seriously.”

Cothren acknowledged that the post and petition “stirred up” tension among students, and she said rumors circulated that death threats were made against the student who reported Cothren’s post to the administration.

Despite the havoc, Cothren and her friends stand by their statements that her punishment was too harsh.

“That post was not meant to be aggressive in any way. I think it was an outlet for her feelings,” Griggs said. “There was so much built-up tension even I would have posted something. She was getting no help. That was literally her only outlet.”

Constitutional law expert Andrew Siegel said Cothren’s case is an “extremely benign” example of online harassment compared to other cases like this.

“Most of the cases out there are about people setting up websites in the name of the principal talking about all his sexual indiscretions. This is much more tame,” said Siegel, a professor at the Seattle University School of Law.

But the school retains the right to discipline students for speech that’s disruptive in the classroom, Siegel said. And if the Kelso district is arguing the post caused a significant disruption, it’s difficult to predict how a court would rule if the case were ever filed, Siegel said.

Even when a student intends only to vent their frustrations online, the post can negatively affect a teacher’s emotional well-being or blow up into a much bigger issue, said Donlin, from the state superintendent’s office. Those situations are “very strong, powerful teachable moments” about how social media posts quickly turn hurtful, he said.

“There are points in time you might step over the line and you don’t even think about it. ... When you are talking about stuff online, there is no such thing as privacy and anonymity,” Donlin said. “If you don’t want it to end up coming back to bite you in the end, don’t post it.”

Growing concern

Cyberbullying of teachers is an emerging concern in the education world. In 2010, at least half of the teachers surveyed by the American Psychological Association reported they had been victimized by students, parents or colleagues, and many of the attacks occurred online.

“We know cyberbullying is a reality our students and adults face,” Tack said, speaking generally of the matter. However, Kelso’s “goal is for this to be rare, if to ever happen at all,” Tack said. “Our primary expectation is that students meet face-to-face with teachers (to resolve conflict).”

This is one of Kelso’s first instances of students targeting a ”high-quality staff member” online, Tack said.

As victims of cyberbullying, teachers can experience severe stress, according to a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. That survey showed 39 percent of teachers “suffered a blow to their confidence” after incidents of cyberbullying, and about a quarter of teachers felt the standard of their teaching was affected. Six percent of the teachers said they missed work due to stress or other related illness.

The Kelso teacher reportedly missed two days of school following Cothren’s post.

So, is it ever OK for students to take to social media with their complaints — and subject their teachers to stress and the possibility of additional cyber attacks? College students, after all, have been able to rate their professors online for years.

The 2017 American Civil Liberties Union-Washington’s student technology guide says younger students should be able to do so, too, to a point.

“A school’s authority to govern student speech generally does not extend to speech that takes place off campus or outside of a school activity. ... The school does not have authority to impose discipline for writing or posting about a school-related topic, or posting an opinion that school officials don’t like.”

The guide notes that there are some limits to free speech: Posting threats of violence, defamation or obscenity are indefensible.

“But in most situations, school administrators and teachers cannot prevent you from saying something just because it is controversial,” the guide says.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to “mark out the line” for students’ off-campus speech rights in the digital era, said Siegel, the Seattle law professor.

“The Supreme Court has had ample opportunity to weigh in on cases and provide some real protection for students, and they just haven’t taken a case yet,” Siegel said. “Even though there are some good, theoretical arguments for why schools shouldn’t be able to punish off-campus speech ... I think many districts still do as long as it causes substantial disruptions in the classroom.”

The rulings in lower court cases are varied — and tend to be “increasingly deferential to the school district,” Siegel said.

But the Cyberbullying Research Center says “schools generally get into trouble when they respond with knee-jerk formal reactions (long-term suspensions or expulsions) without carefully considering all of the facts of the case.” (The center is run by two Ph.D level professors of criminal justice who teach at the University of Wisconsin and Florida Atlantic University and is meant as a information resource for the public. See cyberbullying.org)

Nonetheless, Kelso school officials say they won’t tolerate students’ complaints posted online.

“We want students to be able to advocate for themselves in the appropriate manner, which is face to face. Social media is not the avenue in which to resolve issues,” Tack said.

If the issue cannot be resolved one-on-one with the teacher, students also should approach a school counselor or administrator, Tack said. This method works for the vast majority of students, Tack said, and most student complaints never even make it to the district office because they are resolved at the school level.

In this case, administrators reversed some of Cothren’s punishments just days after the post exploded on Facebook, Cothren said. She still is banned from setting foot in Kelso High School, but the district is allowing her to take online classes through Kelso Virtual Academy, Cothren said.

She was also able to rejoin the Kelso girls tennis team, which she’s played on since she was a freshman. She will be allowed to walk with the class at graduation, Cothren said.

Griggs and her friends are continuing to collect signatures with the hopes of getting Cothren back in the classroom at Kelso High. The group plans to take the petition to the school board in the coming weeks, Griggs said.

“We aren’t trying to defame (the teacher), we aren’t trying to tell everyone Kelso High School sucks or that this teacher is a monstrous teacher,” Griggs said. “Our goal is not to hurt people and break people down. Our goal is to get (Maddie) back in school and make this situation right.”

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