PITTSBURGH — A school district has agreed to pay a teacher and the American Civil Liberties Union $10,000 and to refund more than $4,400 in back pay she lost when she was suspended over a Facebook photo of her and a stripper.
Ginger D'Amico, 37, of New Salem, was given a 30-day suspension in January from her job as a Spanish teacher in Brownsville High School, later reduced to 19 days. The photo of her and the male stripper was taken at a bachelorette party she hosted at her home for a fellow teacher in December, and was posted on the social networking site by someone else at the party.
ACLU attorneys had sent a letter to Brownsville Area Superintendent Philip Savini in which they threatened to sue, and her suspension was lifted Feb. 5. The resulting settlement was announced Tuesday by D'Amico, a teacher's union official and Witold "Vic" Walczak, the ACLU's legal director in Pennsylvania.
Superintendent Savini did not immediately respond to a call for comment Tuesday.
What happened to D'Amico is likely to happen more often, Walczak said.
"Think of that backyard barbecue, the evening in a bar when you think you're in private, but someone's got that cell phone out. They're taking the picture, they're recording you and next thing you know they're putting it up on their Facebook and it goes viral," Walczak said.
D'Amico said she didn't hire the stripper, who wore a G-string, but was aware he would be performing. She said the picture showed her motioning in jest for the stripper to get away.
She said she asked her friend to take the photo off Facebook after she learned about it and believes it may have been removed before that, when others in the school community saw it. It was posted for less than 24 hours, she said.
D'Amico was suspended because her face was the only one clearly identifiable in the pictures, but other teachers known to be at the party got letters of reprimand in their files that are still subject to a union grievance.
D'Amico has been a teacher for 14 years and began teaching in Brownsville in 2003. Her father, Orlando, taught in the district for 34 years.
"Well, the first thing I thought about was my father who had been there so long. ... My dad's name drug through the mud, he worked so hard," D'Amico said. "It was innocent. Nothing happened. That was the biggest thing that hit me."
Walczak said there are no "bright line" cases that clearly define what circumstances allow employers to discipline workers for off-duty behavior that is documented on the Internet.
"Nobody's saying that public employers can never discipline their employees for what they do off the job," Walczak said. He said, in general, discipline is legal "only if they do something that substantially harms the employer or the employee's ability to do their job."
The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, upheld the firing of a police officer who sold a pornographic video on the Internet in which the officer appears in a nondescript police uniform, Walczak said.
In a case more similar to D'Amico's, a teacher encouraged her students to visit her Facebook page, on which the teacher touted how she got drunk on the weekend. That was deemed to be inappropriate, Walczak said.
"In Ginger's case, she had nothing to do with these pictures going up. It's all protected activity. It's all innocent activity," Walczak said.
Walczak said the ACLU and D'Amico will each receive $5,000 under the settlement, in addition to her back pay. The school district acknowledged no wrongdoing.
Walczak said the ACLU could be asked to intervene if the letters reprimanding the other teachers aren't removed from their files after a hearing next month. All references to D'Amico's suspension are being expunged from her personnel file as part of the settlement.
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