A 79-year-old substitute teacher has decided to quit her job rather than comply with orders from Stevens High School administrators to delete thousands of students and friends from her Facebook page.
Carol Thebarge of Charlestown has been working as a paraprofessional and substitute teacher for the past 35 years, accepting assignments at 32 different schools.
"Today will be my last day at Stevens High," Thebarge said. "I was given an ultimatum; to either delete every student from my Facebook page and do not post pictures of them, or be terminated."
Thebarge's Facebook page is open to anyone, but she said strict rules apply for students to be allowed access. They must have been students of Thebarge, and they must have a photograph on Facebook so that she can confirm that they are who they claim to be.
Thebarge became a substitute teacher at the age of 44 after the death of a grandchild. She also works as a wedding planner and expects to receive certification as a substance abuse counselor after turning 80.
While not certified to teach, she was given charge of classrooms. Sometimes, it was a technical or vocational class that she took over. Rules prevented her from teaching in the shop class, so she would teach what she called motivational subjects, stressing truth, character and honesty. She said she would also work the concepts when taking an academic class in which she was following a lesson plan.
"I've had a wonderful career," she said. "I have no resentment for their policy; they have to do what they have to do. I didn't want it to end this way."
Thebarge said she was given the latest ultimatum by school officials in the wake of the firing of Stevens math teacher Christopher LeBlanc after he was charged with four counts of felonious sexual assault on a 14-year-old girl in his classroom. (See related story.)
"Don't penalize me for someone else," Thebarge said in a phone interview Saturday. "I am offended that I followed that by just a week."
Thebarge was first told to delete the students from Facebook a few years ago, she said. She started to comply, but said after reaching about 50 deletions, the feedback made her stop.
"I had students that were asking me what did they do wrong ...," Thebarge said. "I hid my list, but then I realized I had always taught them to 'Live their truth' and I unblocked, and she (the administrator) left me alone."
Over the years, Thebarge said, she has blocked or deleted students for inappropriate conduct. Some have been restored after apologizing for the behavior,
She said some students have seen her Facebook page as a sort of safe haven where they can send her a private message about being bullied or feeling depressed without other students seeing them go up to a teacher for a private conversation.
Since announcing that she would stop teaching rather than obey the administration's mandate to delete students from Facebook, Thebarge said, she has received visits from students and parents. On the Facebook page, her announcement received more than 1,000 "likes" and more than 200 comments.
Thebarge said she has heard talk of a protest by students on Monday, but said she would rather the students remain in their classes.
She will continue with her wedding business and counseling people with drug problems, she said.
The days of filling in at public schools as a substitute, however, are likely over, at least in Claremont.
"I don't want to return to that school," she said.
"It's not that I don't want to be with the kids, but the administration really let me down."
School Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin last night said the issue came to light after LeBlanc's arrest. Another staff member told school administrators about Thebarge's Facebook page.
Claremont School Board policy bars teachers from being "friends" with students on social networking sites such as Facebook, McGoodwin said. He said the high school principal had asked Thebarge to remove students from her "friends" list, and she refused.
McGoodwin met with Thebarge last week and asked her to reconsider.
He called Thebarge a "very caring person," but said he cannot make an exception for one individual. "In truth, being a caring, lovely woman doesn't give you immunity to ignore a school board policy that's designed to protect everyone," he said.
McGoodwin said his most important responsibility is having a "physically and emotionally safe school environment for staff as well as students."
"I cannot turn my back because we have a caring person who is friending many students. Because she's friending students and it's very sincere, but other persons have access to that person as well, so that interpersonal friendship is opening it up to many other people."
McGoodwin said he met with about 25 high school students on Friday for 90 minutes to talk about what happened. "Kids have passion and emotion, and they didn't understand why we could be so heartless to a kind lady," he said.
But McGoodwin said Thebarge wasn't fired; as a substitute teacher, she doesn't have a contract. He said it was her choice.
"In essence, we told her if you cannot comply with school board policy, you cannot work for us. That means we're not going to call her anymore."
He said LeBlanc's arrest has made school personnel more sensitive to keeping appropriate professional boundaries.
"After the LeBlanc matter, everyone was much more sensitive to what has been in place for some time," he said.
By 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, there were 675 signatures on a petition posted on change.org, asking McGoodwin to "reinstate Carol Thebarge, bring back our Mrs. T."