It may seem that a different politician tarnishes his career almost every other week thanks to social media, but rarely do you hear about schools punishing students for opinions made on their personal Facebook pages.
Syracuse University’s School of Education has now effectively expelled a graduate student from its teaching program after he expressed resentment in his Facebook status for a community leader’s complaint that student teachers were coming from Syracuse rather than historically black colleges.
“On July 20, 2011, Werenczak was student teaching with Danforth Middle School when he was introduced to a member of the city’s Concerned Citizens Action Program (CCAP). Shortly afterward, in the presence of Werenczak and one other white student teacher, the CCAP member, who is black, said that he thought that the city schools should hire more teachers from historically black colleges. Werenczak later discussed the remark on Facebook, saying, ‘Just making sure we’re okay with racism. It’s not enough I’m … tutoring in the worst school in the city, I suppose I oughta be black or stay in my own side of town.’ Werenczak further wrote that ‘it kind of offends me that I’m basically volunteering the summer at Danforth, getting up at 630, with no AC, to help tutor kids and that’s not enough.’
While Werenczak was summoned to a meeting with administrators shortly before the school year began, he was not charged with any infraction of Syracuse’s rules and never received a disciplinary hearing. On September 7, however, Social Studies Education Coordinator Jeffery A. Mangram sent Werenczak a letterstating that the School of Education (SOE) was effectively expelling Werenczak because he had ‘posted on [his] Facebook page comments the SOE finds unprofessional, offensive, and insensitive not only to the Danforth School but also to the SOE and Syracuse University.'”
For his actions, Werenczak would be expelled, had the option to voluntarily withdraw, or could gain a chance of “ad-admittance” by taking part in a special course of diversity training, attend counseling for “anger management,” and write a “a reflective paper that demonstrates the progress and growth you have made in relation to issues regarding cultural diversity as well as your own personal growth.”
To stay in school, Werenczak complied with all three conditions by December 14. However, FIRE reports that on January 3 the School of Education(SOE) had not even yet formed a committee to review the case. On January 4, Werenczak was warned that if he took action to push SOE to act, it would “further delay the process.”
“FIRE wrote Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor on January 10, pointing out that SOE’s action ‘profoundly violates Syracuse’s express promises of freedom of speech.’ Syracuse promises in itsStudent Handbook that ‘[s]tudents have the right to express themselves freely on any subject’ and that ‘Syracuse University … welcomes and encourages the expression of dissent.’ Syracuse has failed to respond, leaving Werenczak’s future in limbo.”
The nonprofit educational foundation notes that this is not the first time Syracuse has punished a student for online speech:
“In the fall of 2010, Syracuse University College of Law student Len Audaer was threatened with expulsion and faced a months-long investigation for his role in a fake-news parody blog about life in law school. In January 2011, FIRE named Syracuse one of the worst universities in the nation for free speech in The Huffington Post. Syracuse dropped all charges against Audaer in February 2011.”
Syracuse responded in January 2011 to the article by FIRE in regards to the fake-news blog parody and the Huffington Post list.
“The content of the website was not as harmless and carefree as some public commentators have suggested,” writes Syracuse University Vice Chancellor Eric F. Spina. “In fact, the blog contained false, mean spirited attacks, by name, against uninvolved, innocent, private individuals. “
“Syracuse University places a high value on free speech and due process, but also places a high value on the rights of all of its students to study and learn in an environment free from harassment, intimidation and ridicule,” Spina concluded.
Between what happened at the law school last year and Werenczak’s current case, FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel does not take much stock in the university’s assurances.
“Syracuse’s promises of free speech and due process are rapidly becoming some of the biggest jokes in higher education,” said Kissel. “I can see why Werenczak might be disturbed about his job prospects after hearing a remark that implicated his race. But it’s impossible to see how any reasonable person in the School of Education could use such a mild, off-campus expression of offense to destroy a student’s career.”