Tuesday, August 4, 2020
Aug. 4, 2020

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Harrisburg teacher’s social media post a complicated issue


ALBANY, Ore. — A photo reportedly posted by a Harrisburg High School English teacher has garnered hundreds of comments on social media calling for her removal. But it may not be that simple.

The photo in question appeared last week and showed teacher Misty Bisby taking a selfie in a restaurant. Behind her, a Linn County Sheriff’s Office deputy has their backed turned to the camera. Using the social media platform’s filters, a middle finger emoji and Black Lives Matter sticker were added to the photo. The deputy is circled in red, and “f*** the police” was typed over the photo as well.

The photo went viral, with some defending Bisby’s freedom of speech and others demanding she be terminated.

Harrisburg Superintendent Bryan Starr released a statement on Wednesday that said Bisby’s photo did not reflect the district’s values but the issue was a personnel matter. No information, he said, was being released regarding any action being considered in relation to Bisby’s employment.

“Schools around Oregon are facing difficult decisions regarding staff social media communications on the topic of racial inequities and the appropriate use of force by police,” said Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association. “While school staff retain First Amendment speech rights when they become public school employees, schools have the obligation to maintain a safe and respectful learning environment for all staff and students.”

The issue of social media usage becomes even more complicated in terms of teachers. Political posts subscribing to racist ideology or other hot button topics could open the door to even more complicated questions over who is permitted to remain in their positions and classrooms when no actual crime under Oregon Revised Statute was committed.

“The Oregon School Boards Association is committed to assisting schools around Oregon with improving equity, diversity and inclusion in our public school system,” Green said.

It is currently unknown if Bisby is still employed by the district, but according to local attorney Arnold Poole, it could depend on the terms of her employment.

“It depends what’s in her contract,” he said, noting that the district’s teachers’ union may also have a say.

An effort to discipline Bisby outside of termination also could be complicated. The Teachers Standards and Practices Commission establishes, upholds and enforces professional standards for teachers and administrators in the state of Oregon. The body can receive complaints regarding a teacher’s behavior and open an investigation.

“Administrative rules (enforced by TSPC), just like state laws, are subject to interpretation by Oregon’s courts, including the state Supreme Court,” said Trent Danowski, deputy director for TSPC. “The rulings from these court cases produce case law, which TSPC then applies to subsequent incidents coming before the commission. Oregon case law has established that TSPC does not have the authority to act upon an educator’s TSPC-issued professional license unless there is a nexus or connection between the alleged misconduct of the person and the profession of being an educator.”

In specific terms of the incident in Harrisburg, Danowski said, “Short of the off-duty conduct resulting in a criminal conviction for a crime listed in ORS 342.143, or otherwise establishing the off-duty conduct is connected to the person’s professional responsibilities as an educator, it is unlikely that TSPC would have the authority to take disciplinary action in the matter.”