Religious conflict leads to teacher's suspension

Religious conflict leads to teacher's suspension

Staff WriterFebruary 16, 2010 

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    Go to the WakeEd blog at to view some of the Facebook comments made by suspended Wake science teacher Melissa Hussain and her friends.

— A Wake County middle-school teacher may be fired after she and her friends made caustic remarks on a Facebook page about her students, the South and Christianity.

Melissa Hussain, an eighth-grade science teacher at West Lake Middle School in southern Wake County, was suspended with pay Friday while investigators review her case, according to Greg Thomas, a Wake schools spokesman. The suspension came after some of Hussain's students and their parents objected to comments on her Facebook page, many revolving around her interaction with Christian students.

Hussain wrote on the social-networking site that it was a "hate crime" that students anonymously left a Bible on her desk, and she told how she "was able to shame her kids" over the incident. Her Facebook page included comments from friends about "ignorant southern rednecks," and one commenter suggested Hussain retaliate by bringing a Dale Earnhardt Jr. poster to class with a swastika drawn on the NASCAR driver's forehead.

"I don't defend what the kids were doing," said Murray Inman, a parent of one of Hussain's students. "I just couldn't imagine an educator, or a group of educators, engaging in this kind of dialogue about kids."

Hussain did not return calls and e-mail messages Monday.

The Wake district doesn't have a policy on the use of social networking sites, Thomas said. But the district, North Carolina's largest, does have a code of ethics for employees that the school spokesman says applies to social networking. The code says employees' conduct "should be such as to protect both the person's integrity and/or reputation and that of the school system."

Teachers across the nation have been suspended or fired because of questionable material posted on their Facebook pages and other online social networking sites.

'We are public figures'

In 2008, seven Charlotte-Mecklenburg school employees were disciplined and at least one was fired because of Facebook postings. That led to a memo going to all Charlotte-Mecklenburg school staff warning that offensive postings to social networking sites are grounds for termination or disciplinary action.

Thomas and Jennifer Lanane, president of the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators, said they're not aware of any Wake school employees who were fired because of postings. But Lanane, who said she wasn't aware of the details of the Hussain case, said teachers need to be careful about information they put online.

"We are public figures," Lanane said. "We are held to a higher standard."

In Hussain's case, the comments in question were on the public side of her Facebook page. She has since limited public access.

Parents of children in her class said they learned about the comments last month, leading them to complain to the school three weeks ago.

The picture of Jesus

Parents said the situation escalated after a student put a postcard of Jesus on Hussain's desk that the teacher threw in the trash. Parents also said Hussain sent to the office students who, during a lesson about evolution, asked about the role of God in creation.

On her Facebook page, Hussain wrote about students spreading rumors that she was a Jesus hater. She complained about her students wearing Jesus T-shirts and singing "Jesus Loves Me." She objected to students reading the Bible instead of doing her work.

But Annette Balint, whose daughter is in Hussain's class, said the students have the right to wear those shirts and sing "Jesus Loves Me," a long-time Sunday School staple. She said the students were reading the Bible during free time in class.

"She doesn't have to be a professing Christian to be in the classroom," Balint said. "But she can't go the other way and not allow God to be mentioned."

Hussain, a 2004 Florida State University graduate, has been a Wake teacher since 2006. Her religious affiliation isn't on her Facebook page.

'Merry Christmas'

The flash point for the comments came after the Bible was left on Hussain's desk in December. The Bible was accompanied by an anonymous card, which, according to Hussain, said "'Merry Christmas' with Christ underlined and bolded." She said there was no love shown in giving her the Bible.

"I can't believe the cruelty and ignorance of people sometimes," Hussain wrote on her Facebook page.

Hussain also said she wouldn't let the Bible incident "go unpunished."

Her friends soon joined the discussion about the situation. The one who suggested Hussain's "getting even" by bringing the swastika-marred Earnhardt poster to class said it would be "teaching" students a lesson.

"And without a job," Hussain responded. "But I like it!"

Hussain's comments included one where she complained that she "hates" parents who complain about their child's first B in middle school. She said her husband suggested she start a blog "based on ridiculous students and their parents."

Balint said it was clear to the class that Hussain was talking about her daughter. "I feel violated that she would say those things," she said.

The length of the investigation is frustrating parents.

"My biggest concern is whether the resentment between the students and the teacher will continue for the rest of the school year," said Robert Boretti, a parent.

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