PITTSBURGH - A teacher suspended after hosting a bachelorette party that included a stripper will receive back pay, an award for emotional distress and attorneys' fees, and have her personnel record cleared as part of a settlement with the Brownsville Area School District (Fayette County), the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania State Education Association announced today. Ginger D'Amico, a Spanish teacher at Brownsville High School, was suspended without pay for thirty days in January after photos of her with a stripper at a bachelorette party were posted on Facebook by someone else who attended the event.
"As technology breaks down barriers to privacy, public employers cannot punish employees simply because they disapprove of the worker's off-duty conduct," said Witold "Vic" Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "Discipline for off-duty conduct must be limited to behavior that is significantly harmful to the employer."
On December 19, 2009, Ms. D'Amico hosted a bachelorette party for a fellow teacher. The majority of guests were teachers or other school district employees. The following day someone who had attended posted pictures from the party, which included an appearance by a male stripper, on her Facebook page. The pictures were removed at Ms. D'Amico's request less than one day after they were posted.
School administrators launched an investigation of the bachelorette party after being notified about the photos. In February all the teachers who attended the event received certified letters saying disciplinary notices would be placed in their personnel files because of "immoral behavior." Because Ms. D'Amico was the only one clearly identifiable in the photos, she was given a thirty-day suspension without pay.
Until this incident, Ms. D'Amico, who has taught at the school for seven years, had a clean disciplinary record and had received satisfactory reviews. Prior to returning to the district in 2003, where her father had been a venerated teacher for 34 years, Ms. D'Amico was an award-winning teacher in Baltimore County, Maryland.
"I don't know what was more devastating to me, being singled out amongst a group of colleagues or feeling as if I destroyed my family name," said Ms. D'Amico. "An innocent girls' night out was turned into a crime, which it certainly was not. Now I'm just glad we've reached an agreement and hopefully everyone can put this matter behind them."
The school district agreed to reinstate Ms. D'Amico halfway through her suspension after the ACLU-PA threatened a lawsuit. Subsequently, the district agreed not to contest the PSEA's union grievance to recover Ms. D'Amico's back wages and to pay $10,000 to settle the matter without litigation.
"Under what circumstances public employers can punish employees for off-the-job conduct is a gray area legally and the instances of employers learning about employees' conduct is skyrocketing with the proliferation of recording technology, especially cell-phone cameras," said Walczak. "Unless we want to open the door to teetotalling bosses punishing workers for having a beer during a backyard barbecue, dating the wrong person, or enjoying the wrong entertainment, the law needs to develop a clearer line to limit public employers' control over employees' off-duty conduct."
At a press conference announcing the decision today, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Ms. D'Amico expressed their appreciation to the Brownsville Area School District for its willingness to work out a settlement in this matter and to help put the incident behind the parties.
- More information about the case, including a copy of the settlement