A special-education teacher in the Torrance Unified School District has been removed from the classroom after infuriating parents with a Facebook post saying she was about to enter a meeting with "crazy parents" to discuss an autistic student whom the teacher describes as a "hot mess."
The teacher, Suzanne Hutton, said she was looking forward to ''hitting happy hour'' after work.
Hutton led a class of seven children with autism at Howard Wood Elementary School. The swiftness with which the district took action in her case underscores how quickly a social-media blunder can backfire in an age where every private person has a public platform.
A few minutes before 9 a.m. on Dec. 5, Hutton was about to enter a meeting with parents to discuss their child's Individualized Education Program, which amounts to a plan that spells out learning objectives and documents the progress of special-education students. Widely known as IEPs, the plans are a staple of the special-education experience and require regular meetings involving teachers, attorneys, administrators and parents.
Before ducking into the meeting, she left a post.
"Well I have an annual IEP this morning with lawyers and crazy parents. The student is a hot mess but so sweet! So after work I'm hitting happy hour at least I have something to look forward too!!! (sic) Deep breath ... I'm going in."
The meeting began at 9 a.m. By 9:15 a.m., parents of another child in the class had screen-grabbed the post and emailed it to Jacqueline Williams, the district's director of special education. By the time the meeting ended at 10:30 a.m., an attorney who represents the school district had seen the email and forwarded it to human resources, according to one of the parents who'd been monitoring the teacher's posts. The next morning, Hutton was removed from the classroom.
"You cross the line when you call a student severely impacted with autism a 'hot mess,' " said the mother of a child in the class who asked not to be identified. "And she's not just saying that to friends after work. She's saying this on a completely public, open forum, where anyone can go see it."
District officials confirmed that Hutton has been removed from the classroom as a result of the comments on Facebook.
"The district is investigating the situation," district spokesperson Tammy Khan said in an email. "The teacher has been placed on administrative leave during the investigation."
Hutton could not be reached for comment. Her situation is the latest in a string of cases nationwide in which teachers have been disciplined for posting comments and photos on their personal social-media pages.
In 2009, a 24-year-old high school teacher in Georgia resigned under pressure for posting a photo of herself holding two alcoholic drinks.
In 2010, at least three teachers in New York were fired for inappropriate posts. One had friended some of his female students and made inappropriate comments under their photos, such as "This is sexy."
In 2011, a teacher in New York was fired after posting, a day after a 12-year-old girl at the school drowned in the Atlantic Ocean, that she would like to take her fifth-graders to the beach because "I HATE THEIR GUTS!." (The teacher later won her job back.)
Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills and a leading expert on the link between social media and psychology, said he believes these gaffes are common in part because technology has a way of stripping away well-placed inhibitions.
"When you're behind a glass screen, and you're looking at that glass screen, all you see is a reflection of yourself," he said. "You don't see that person on the other end. Or the people."
Rosen, co-author of a "psychology of technology" book called "iDisorder," advises taking 30 seconds to a minute before hitting the "send" or "post" button on any form of written electronic communication.
"Write it and walk away, then read it again," he said. "Is it going to hurt anybody's feelings, upset anyone, or make me look narcissistic, even? ... Give your brain a chance to reset itself."
As for Hutton, the parents who turned her in believe her transgression is worse than, say, the post of a teacher holding two alcoholic drinks.
"She's talking about a heavily impacted child and about a meeting that should be confidential," said one of the parents.
He added that special-education parents already tend to worry that teachers think negatively of them, so her post had the effect of confirming those fears.
"I want her career," he said. "She should never be allowed to work with kids again."
The teacher hadn't friended the parents, but she hadn't restricted access to the general public in her Facebook settings, so they could see her posts.
Hutton's first post that raised eyebrows happened during the first week of school, when she wrote, "OK so this work thing is getting in my (sic) way of my social life! June can't come fast enough!!!"
The parents took a screen grab of that post and others throughout the year. They provided the screen shots to the Daily Breeze.
It's unclear whether the teacher violated district policy. Torrance Unified does have rules for its employees about technology, but they make no mention of social media.
However, it does have a clause that states, "Employees shall not access, post, submit, publish, or display harmful or inappropriate matter that is threatening, obscene, disruptive, or sexually explicit, or that could be construed as harassment or disparagement of others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, or political beliefs."