We have followed a disturbing trend of teachers, and other public employees, who have been fired for activities in their private lives, including jobs previously held in the entertainment or sex industries. Now, an elementary teacher in the Bronx, Melissa Petro, has lost her job because she wrote a column in the Huffington Post on her brief stint as a sex worker. Dubbed the “Hooker Teacher,” Petro was shown the door at the demand of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In the column, Petro objected to the move to block people from using Craigs List for sexual services and added this bombshell: “From October 2006 to January 2007, I accepted money in exchange for sexual services I provided to men I met online in what was then called the ‘erotic services’ section of Craigslist.org.” The column by Petro caused a firestorm of controversy from a cover story in the New York Post to an array of blog and print stories. Now, in a Salon article, Petro details how the label as the “Hooker teacher” has barred her from getting another job despite an excellent record that includes two master’s degrees, five years’ experience in nonprofit work and three years as a teacher.
The story raises the question of why a teacher cannot write about such experiences in her private life and advocate for similarly situated people. She is not saying that she is currently a prostitute. I also doubt that elementary students are going to be reading the article and most are unlikely to know of or understand the controversy. My concern is that this growing list of discarded teachers and employees creates a chilling effect on the free speech and association of citizens who are not given any concrete guideline as to what is considered unacceptable viewpoints or speech. The result is that teachers may over-compensate and avoid any speech or associations that could be challenged by any parent. I realize there must be some ability for a school to deal with extreme cases but I am unsure of what standard applies to give notice to teachers. It also seems to me that any controversy now caused by a teacher’s writings or statements in his or her private life can be used as a basis for termination.
We have previously seen teachers (here, England, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here), here, here, students (here and here) and other public employees (here and here and here) fired for their private speech or conduct, including school employees fired for posing in magazines (here), appearing on television shows in bikinis (here), or having a prior career in the adult entertainment industry (here).
I have only read a few quotes for Petro’s writings but the objections appear to be her admission that she was once a sex worker and her failure to denounce such work by others (and supporting their use of Craigs List). Should that be the basis for forcing a teacher out of her job? What do you think?