A school bus driver for Haralson County Schools in Georgia was terminated after he posted a comment on Facebook about a student not receiving a free lunch. The case serves as the latest example of the confusing and risky nature of social media posts by school employees and calls to light the importance of school district policy.
The district, located about 50 miles west of Atlanta near the Alabama border, said Johnny Cook not only violated employee policy in posting his comment about the unnamed student, but also got his facts wrong, which Cook, pictured above, denies.
He turned to his Facebook page on May 21 to vent about one of his bus riders, who complained about being hungry because he wasn't able to eat at school. Cook claimed that the student, whose name he did not post on Facebook, told him he was turned away in the cafeteria line because he had insufficient funds in his account. After deliberating on how to respond, Cook logged on to Facebook and posted the following:
"What! This child is already on reduced lunch and we can't let him eat. Are you kidding me? I'm certian (sic) there was leftover food thrown away today. But kids were turned away because they didn't have ($0.40) on there (sic) account. As a tax payer, I would much rather feed a child than throw (the food) away. I would rather feed a child than to give food stamps to a crack head. [...] the next time we can't feed a kid for forty cent(s), please call me. We will scrape up the money. This is what the world has come to."
District spokeswoman Kersha Cartwright confirmed to STN that the student in question takes advantage of the reduced lunch program, which provides a type of debit card to students that parents can refresh with funds throughout the school year. But, she added, the district has a policy for delinquent accounts that allows for two lunch purchases before the parents are notified that the card needs to be refreshed. Upon a third attempt, the student is offered a "cold" sack lunch consisting in part of milk and a sandwich.
"They are not going to let those kids go hungry," said Cartwright. "We have 70 percent free and reduced lunch here in this county, so we are very, very cognizant of the fact that kids are hungry. Sometimes school is the only place they have to eat."
Cartwright said a district investigation into the incident, including review of cafeteria video, found that the student did not actually get into the lunch line on the day he made his comment to Cook. As such, Cartwright added, no cafeteria staff member turned the student away because of insufficient funds. She also said that one of the lunch employees had also paid for the student's lunch for the previous two weeks.
While she said district sympathized with Cook's frustration, Cartwright added that he went about voicing his concerns in the wrong way and in direct violation with the employee handbook he had signed. She said Cook admitted he did sign the handbook, "but didn't really read it."
According to the district's policy: "Employees who post or contribute any comment or content on social networking sites that cause a substantial disruption to the instruction environment are subject to disciplinary procedures up to and including termination." Cartwright read the passage to STN during a phone interview.
Cook admitted to STN that he is guilty of violating the policy and apologized to school adminstrators during a disciplinary meeting. He said he is a horse trainer by trade but also served as a classified full-time bus driver for the past year without incident and while driving what he called "the toughest route in the county." He said he picked up students at state and group homes, many of whom he said have complained to him about the district's free and reduced lunch policy, and missed only one day of work to accompany his daughter to have a medical procedure performed.
Following the initial Facebook post, which has garned national attention and has resulted in several thousand Facebook views and numerous comments of support, Superintendent Brett Stanton called Cook into a meeting with middle school principal Dr. Brian Ridley and the lunch room manager. He advised Cook that if he apologized and deleted the Facebook post, he would remain employed by the district after serving a two-week suspension. Cook said he did apologize to the middle school principal, Dr. Brian Ridley, and told him that he should have first approached the principal about the alleged incident before turning to Facebook.
But Cook said what really drew his ire was an additional stipulation that Cook also post another Facebook comment that the story he shared was untrue. At that point, Cook said he decided to stand his ground.
Cook again turned to Facebook to update his followers on his firing and posted a transcript of a recording he made during the meeting. Georgia has a "one-person consent" law that makes it a crime to secretly record a phone call or in-person conversation "originating in any private place" unless one party to the conversation consents. In this case, Cook told STN that he was the one person who consented. Peggy A. Burns, Esq., owner of Education Compliance Group and an STN contributor, said "one-party consent" generally does protect the person who is recording a conversation even if other parties are unaware.
"The weight of authority is clearly that the one-party consent statute allows one of the parties to a conversation to record the conversation without the consent or knowledge of the others," she added.
Cartwright said Superintendent Stanton confirmed what Cook recounted about the meeting in his Facebook post, and added that Stanton did not tell Cook anything "he wouldn't have told anyone else."
At this report, an online petition had been signed by several thousand visitors who demand that the district reinstate Cook.
Meanwhile, Cartwright said the entire situation was "disappointing" not only because Cook could have avoided it altogether had he adhered to the district's policy and gone through proper channels, but also because the lunch staff "is working hard to make sure kids have meals."
"I applaud (his intent)," she added, "it's just that the procedure was wrong."