AUGUST 1, 2013
John Nova Lomax, Houstonia Magazine
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.
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.
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 was sent to the principal. Enter another student, Demi Gray, “already hurling insults and exhibiting an extremely flippant attitude” in solidarity with Wells.
In principal Brian Merrell’s office, 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. “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 Ethredge was terminated.
Gray taunted on Facebook. Wells chimed in.
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.
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.”