Once again, social media is dominating the School Ethics Commission’s docket, as the body issued decisions Nov. 16 in two cases involving school board members’ actions on social media.

Case I

A complainant alleged that a school board member had violated various provisions of the School Ethics Act in a three-count complaint.

Count One

First, the complainant alleged that the respondent board member continued to act as an “administrator” of a social media site after her membership on the board of education began and participated on a second site wherein postings and comments about the school district and personnel were allowed by invited members of the group.

The complaint alleged that during this time, the websites contained critical statements about the district’s superintendent and business administrator. The school board member responded that she acted only as an “administrator” of the site for the first five months of her board membership and thereafter resigned as administrator in May 2021. She said she had no editorial control over the site but merely acted in a ministerial capacity.

The School Ethics Commission held that “merely serving as an administrator of the social media page, which may have included complaints or posts by third parties that were unflattering or critical of district administrators does not give rise to a violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24(j).”  The SEC cautioned school officials to be mindful of their obligations as board members, but stated in this particular case, the facts did not show a violation.

Count Two

In the same case, it was also alleged that the respondent board member attended multiple committee meetings of the Buildings, Grounds and Transportation Committee and publicly commented on her disagreement with the district’s proposed cleaning protocols and use of certain disinfectants during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The SEC found that the respondent did not make any decision or take any action contrary to the educational welfare of the students by “merely questioning purported experts at a public meeting about the district’s protocols, including the use of certain disinfectants, used or to be used during the pandemic to ensure the safety and security of students and staff as school buildings reopened for in-person learning.”

Count Three

Lastly, the respondent board member was charged with serving as an administrator of a private Facebook group in which she posted information related to the district.  This group was not open to the public and was not used by the respondent board member in her official capacity.  The complainant alleged that this forum amounted to taking “private action that may compromise the board.”  The board ultimately could find no facts that demonstrated that the private site was in any way done in her official capacity and there were no facts to demonstrate that any statements on this site compromised the board.  The SEC once again urged school officials “to exercise caution while navigating the inter-connected world of social media.”

As such, all charges were dismissed against the respondent board member and no penalty imposed.

This case can be found here.

Case II

In a consolidated matter involving two complainants, it was alleged that a former board member violated the School Ethics Act when he made multiple anti-Muslim statements on his personal Facebook page.

The respondent did not dispute the fact that he made the statements as alleged. However, he stated that they were intended to be only viewed by people on his private site and that he did not intend to publish the statements to the general public.  Lastly, the respondent did have a disclaimer on his page that stated that the opinions expressed were his and not that of his board of education.

The matter went to a full hearing before the Office of Administrative Law.  The administrative law judge held that even though the respondent was no longer a board member as he had not sought reelection, that he had violated N.J.S.A. 18A:12-24.1(e) insofar his statements did indeed take private action that compromised the board. It was determined that the respondent’s statement could be seen as “violating the public trust or creating such an impression so as to cause the impairment of the board or to expose it to discredit or suspicion.”  The administrative law judge recommended a censure for the respondent.

The SEC upheld both the findings and the proposed penalty of the administrative law judge. The penalty phase of the case will now go on to the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, who can adopt, reject or modify the censure. Please stay tuned to future School Board Notes articles for updates.

This case can be found here.

Board members must be aware that every SEC analysis relies solely on the evidence presented to the SEC in any matter.  As such, it is important that board members take great care when using social media.  Questions on these cases should be directed to your district’s school board attorney or the NJSBA’s Attorney of the Day at 609-278-5279.

 

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