Teachers and school staff not only have to comply with school policy and the law, but often also with unspoken, unwritten rules of conduct unrelated to their actual job performance. As at least two Californians have learned so far this year, teachers and school can be fired for out-of-school behavior perceived to be objectionable.
In February, a financial aid worker at San Diego Christian College was fired for getting pregnant out of wedlock. In July, a veteran teacher at a Glendora Catholic school was fired for marrying his same-sex partner.
Those cases involved private religious schools, which have some additional legal flexibility in employment decisions about those who violate their religious standards. Public school teachers aren’t immune from being fired based on their perceived behavior outside school, but public schools are prohibited from terminating employees based on discrimination or other illegal reasons.
Determining whether that termination was actually based on discrimination can be tricky. A recent case in Idaho, for example, looks like a clear-cut case of wrongful termination based on gender -- but it might not be.
Pocatello High School’s girls’ basketball coach and boys’ football coach were engaged, and they went on a joint vacation in July. Upon their return, the basketball coach posted some vacation photos on Facebook, one of which showed her fiancé’s hand lightly covering her bikini-clad breast.
She pulled the photo down within 24 hours, but the Internet is hard to erase. The local school board got hold of it and fired the female coach -- but only reprimanded the male. Even when parents protested, school officials stuck by those decisions. They’ve already hired a new coach for the girls’ basketball team -- a man.
Clearly gender discrimination, right? Unfortunately, perhaps not. The woman was told she was fired because she was the one who posted the photo.
To prove wrongful termination, the plaintiff needs to show that discrimination or another illegal motive was a key factor in the firing decision. In this case, if a court finds that coaches may be fired for potentially-offensive Facebook posts, her firing could be perfectly legal.
In any case where wrongful termination is suspected, it’s crucial to find any and all evidence of the actual motivation for that firing. An experienced attorney who knows where to look may be able to discover valuable facts and details that can make or break a case.
Source: AOL Jobs, "Woman Coach Dismissed for Photo of Breast Grab But Fiancé Coach Stays," Erik Sherman, Nov. 7, 2013