Was Laraine Cook Wrongfully Terminated?
Wrongful termination cases aren’t to be taken lightly. With social media having loads of outreach, a story can spread like wildfire, making it more stressful for those involved.
Pocatello High School in Bannock County raised eyebrows this October when they terminated girls’ basketball coach Laraine Cook over a Facebook photo that some news outlets have deemed “controversial” but which is, in reality, hardly a social media blip when you compare it to the norms of Miley Cyrus twerking on every channel and Kardashian selfies.
But then again, those social media divas that post risque photos aren’t teachers – and Laraine Cook was.
What”s the Big Deal?
The photo which has stirred all of the hubbub was of Cook and her fiance (who was a fellow coach) Tom Harrison on vacation. They were both in bathing suits and Harrison had his hand on his fiancee’s breast, but over her bathing suit. There were no lewd gestures, no skin on skin contact, no alcohol in the picture and both were dressed in appropriate beach wear. As photos go, it was nothing that millions of people don”t have on their social media pages.
One Employee Fired, One Not
After Cook posted the photo, Pocatello HS”s athletic director told Harrison he should have Cook take down the photo to “avoid problems.” She did – but someone sent the photo to the school board resulting in her termination. More than 2,000 people have signed a petition to restore her position at the school but the board isn’t budging. The question is are they sticking to it because they’re certain they’re right or because they are in too far to back down?
Bannock County School Board Policies in Question
What’s worse is now they’re trying to have Cook’s teaching license revoked. So what were the grounds for her termination? The board deemed the photo “immoral.” Bannock County has no social media policy but they cite employee policies they say justify the firing. In Policy 7121 of its Employee Standards of Conduct under the heading of Misconduct, they state:
The following are examples of misconduct on the part of district personnel and may result in disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment with the nature of the offense:
Immorality: Immoral and indecent acts or conduct against others to include the use of foul or obscene manosdeayuda language or gestures.
Interview with victim about her termination:
Was Laraine Cook Engaged in Immoral Misconduct?
So the question is, did the behavior Cook engaged in rise to the level of official “misconduct” and if it did, are other teachers at risk for termination? What’s interesting is that her fiance wasn”t terminated but was only reprimanded. This is important when we break down exactly what the code of conduct says. By firing Cook and not firing Harrison, the school board implies that a woman having her breast touched is an “immoral or indecent act.”
So why then isn’t the fondler considered to be engaged in an indecent act? Where’s the logic in that? The board clarified that Cook was singled out for termination because it was posted to her Facebook account. There is a long list of those fired for Facebook posts. Some of these terminations are understandable and some seem petty at best and illegal at worst.
Was the Firing Sexist?
So is it the act of posting the photo to Facebook that was the indecent act or the act depicted? If the act depicted is the issue, singling Cook out seems biased and/or sexist. And if transacting with an “inappropriate” photo is immoral, it seems the person who sent the photo on to the school board should be terminated if they are a Bannock county employee…
Was the Firing Excessive?
The language of the policy is that the action taken will be “up to and including termination” which demonstrates that termination is the maximum action to be taken. Once the county opted for the maximum cited disciplinary action, why didn’t it end there? Why then are they pushing to have her teaching license revoked?
Interestingly, the Idaho Educators Code of Ethics doesn”t have a blanket morality clause and the only photo and social media policies relate to educators interacting with students. In Cook’s case, who is the arbiter of morality? The school board? If it ends up as a civil case, it will likely be judge and jury that determine if Cook’s actions were immoral and just cause for termination.
Was the Firing Wrongful?
When a terminated employee files suit after being fired, the typical question is whether the termination was wrongful. The definition of wrongful termination is when an employee has been fired for illegal reasons including (but not limited to) discrimination, breach of contract or in violation of public policy. There are several approaches Cook could take to fight her firing.
First, Cook could cite discrimination because she was singled out for termination. Second, she could try breach of contract because the Code of Conduct is very vague and it is very subjective to call something “immoral” particularly when a review of all past and present Facebook pages of all Bannock County Board of Education staff might reveal similarly “controversial” images.
Another interesting factor in this case is that Bannock County is a heavily religious area – far more so than is typical in America. Pocatello is more than 52% LDS (Mormon) – a religion that is more conservative than most. Cook could argue (even if she herself is a Mormon) that she was punished based on religious tenets common to the community rather than district or state policies. If the board is heavily Mormon in composition, this could prove a sticky wicket for Bannock County as church and state are intended by our laws to be intrinsically separate.
Contact Rob Kornfeld for Help If You Were Wrongfully Terminated