Pretty soon, summer will be a wrap. As Houston students head into the school year, we present them with a cautionary tale about some bad behavior at Waller High School. If they absorb the following lessons—gleaned from the alleged stories of two students and, sadly, a teacher—they’ll avoid the principal’s office.
1. Don’t harass people online, or encourage others to, and don’t waste class time. It was November 13, 2012, and 12th-grade Waller High School English teacher Elizabeth Ethredge was teaching a class on storytelling when things went off course. By all accounts of the day (taken from a report from the school that was later included in a lawsuit), the teacher started complaining that a Cy-Fair ISD student had stolen a computer from her son.
It’s murkier from there. In one version of events, the eight-year Waller veteran urged her students to contact the miscreant on Facebook and make bogus offers to buy the computer back. (Ethredge herself is a user not of Facebook but Twitter, where she is a self-described “wife, annoying mom, the Football Lady, and a teacher of literature and life.”) In another version, the teacher told her students that she wouldn’t be opposed to their harassing the thief. And a third version, reportedly corroborated by multiple students, accuses Ethredge of wasting precious class time by giving out the alleged thief’s Facebook information and cellphone number and urging her pupils to put the bandit “on blast” until he coughed up the computer.
2. Avoid outbursts, cell phones in the classroom, dress-code violations, and a “flippant attitude.” All was calm for more than four months. Then, this past March, according to court documents, student Dylan Wells burst into Ethredge’s classroom ahead of the bell in “a loud and boisterous manner.” Ethredge happened to be chatting on her cell at the time, making the intrusion doubly annoying.
Wells had long been a burr under his teacher’s saddle, what with his repeated “disruptions of the instructional period.” After failing to quiet him, Ethredge “responded with the discipline-management technique known as a ‘temporary change of placement.’” In other words, Wells was sent to the principal.
Enter another student, Demi Gray, “already hurling insults and exhibiting an extremely flippant attitude” in solidarity with Wells. Unfortunately for Gray, “her inappropriate self-involvement in the discipline situation” drew attention to the fact that she had fallen short of Waller’s dress code, and Ethredge responded with a “temporary change of placement” for her too.
3. Remember: bad judgment has consequences. It was in principal Brian Merrell’s office that Gray and Wells sprung what Ethredge and her lawyer Susan Soto have branded a hastily concocted trap. The duo spilled the beans about Ethredge putting her kid’s alleged antagonist “on blast” back in November, spending too much class time on her cell, over-sharing personal info, and working on her grad degree during class time. Principal Merrell launched an investigation. “Multiple students in multiple class periods confirmed,” according to the resulting report, that during class time Ethredge had organized what amounted to a mob of cyber-bullies.
Ethredge later confessed to telling her students that she “would not be opposed” to them harassing the perp. “But I didn’t tell them they could do it on class time,” the teacher reportedly said. On April 3, Ethredge was suspended with pay, and five days later Waller superintendent Danny Twardowski wrote that Ethredge’s conduct “was a waste of valuable instructional time to further [her] own personal agenda.” Ethredge was terminated.
4. Be aware that what you say online can come back to haunt you in real life. The ruling was met with jubilation on at least one Facebook page.
“Hey Ethredge,” Gray taunted. “I threw stones at your house.” He continued: “what you got for me?”
“Hahahaha,” Wells chimed in. “Bitch aint got s***.”
After she was fired, Ethredge left Waller, went home, and, at least on the evidence of her tweets, got heavily into The Voice. She also pulled out her Mary Kay leftovers from the closet. Back in the day, she’d been a champ, a director, a winner of four cars. A former student came by and picked up crates and crates of eye shadow.
She sought comfort in peel-and-eat shrimp and hot lunches at Genghis Grill and Twin Peaks, but little did Gray and Wells know that (the following words should be read in the gravelly voice of the late Paul Winfield) what was cooking in Ethredge’s kitchen was a dish best served cold.
5. Very important: never mess with a woman who won four cars working for Mary Kay. Exactly a month after she was let go, Ethredge filed suit in Harris County District Court alleging that her former students had defamed her character, libeled her, inflicted emotional distress upon her, subjected her to public hatred and ridicule, and caused her to seek a physician’s care. And those Facebook taunts! What an outrageous breach of acceptable student-teacher relations! She hopes that the kids will be forced to pay court costs and actual and exemplary damages, with interest.
As general counsel for HISD’s teacher’s union, attorney Chris Tritico thinks the likelihood of that ever happening is virtually nil. “I usually advise my clients not to file these cases because collecting money from 17-year-old kids is next to impossible,” he says. “You might get a piece of paper saying that you won, but nothing else. It’s a decent case she has, but still, they’re kids.” (The lawyer for Wells and Gray declined to comment.)
That’s beside the point, according to Ethredge’s attorney Susan Soto, herself a former teacher and principal. A solo practitioner, Soto was drawn to the case because she doesn’t believe that kids should be able to back-talk their teachers, reduce a teaching career to shambles, and then taunt them on Facebook. And like Ethredge, she sees the case as a teachable moment.
“She dedicated a lot of time teaching these kids not just English, but also life lessons,” Soto says. “This suit serves as a model for students, shows them the process on how to stand up and do the right thing.”