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Superintendent's Fall Seen as Lesson for Other Public Officials

Nancy Sebring went from being the leader of Iowa's largest school district, to the incoming leader of Omaha schools, to jobless in fewer than 24 hours, after revelations surfaced last month that she used school district computers to send sexually explicit emails to a man she was having an affair with at the time.

The Des Moines Register has an account of Sebring's reversal of fortune, which includes revelations of dozens of emails turned up during a public-records request. The Omaha World-Herald has also been following the story closely, and has linked to some of the emails (which it has edited in some cases for propriety.) The stories also indicate that Sebring attempted to delete the emails, but they were found on a school district server.

This is not the first time that suggestive electronic communications have been linked to public officials. The use of district-owned computer devices make these emails hard to delete, and subject to public-records laws. In 2008, current Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he had a "playful" relationship with a Miami Herald reporter who was on the schools beat at that time. The relationship was revealed in flirtatious emails between the two. Carvalho was associate superintendent at the time, but the revelation did not derail his promotion. And a lawsuit against Kwame M. Kilpatrick, the former mayor of Detroit, led to the release of thousands of amorous text messages he sent in 2002 and 2003 to his chief of staff, using city-owned cellphones. He spent a short term in jail after pleading no contest to other charges related to that scandal.

The situation is yet another wake-up call for public officials, according to the Register article:

"Maree Sneed, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who represents school districts, said Sebring's violation of her employer's Internet-use policy was something she's 'never seen before—not at that level' as a district superintendent.

'This is really a cautionary tale for all school administrators,' she said. 'This is something that'll probably be looked at nationally.'

Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said lapses in judgment on the job can be hard to overcome in the education sector.

'Particularly at the school district level, a superintendent should be beyond reproach,' Domenech said. ...

The district's technology policy forbids using school computers or email accounts for personal correspondence and also forbids the exchange of sexually explicit materials.

In addition, the school system's handbook for administrators states, 'Administrators are expected to lead by example, with honesty and integrity, and refrain from conduct which may be considered unprofessional or inappropriate.'"

But Sebring told the newspaper that "every individual's entitled to have a private life, even public employees."

Education Week has written several stories on digital privacy rights as they apply to school officials and other public employees. In 2010, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that teachers' personal emails are not subject to public records requests, even if they were sent from school computers, unless they relate to state business. Similar rulings have been made in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

In 2009, Louisiana enacted a state law requiring documentation of every electronic interaction between teachers and students through a nonschool-issued device. And in 2007, we hosted an online chat with school officials talking about e-mail privacy and security concerns.

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