A Rocklin teacher said a picture on Instagram of her and her partner, discovered by one of her students, began a series of incidents that drove her from her classroom and could trigger a lawsuit against the Rocklin Unified School District.
This week Amy Estes filed a discrimination complaint against the district with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
"I was outed," said Estes, who is gay, but has never discussed that with students.
Estes, who has taught English at Spring View Middle School in Rocklin for five years, considered herself well-liked before the barrage of online taunts, nasty statements and memes began at the beginning of the school year.
The hurtful social media posts were brought to Estes' attention by other students and parents. She didn't look at the posts. She didn't want them to color her perception of her students. Instead she went to the school's administration for help.
"My administrator and school counselor said it was drama and it would blow over," Estes said.
Instead, the social media buzz bubbled up in the classroom, Estes said. Students discussed it with one another in whispers and giggles.
At the recommendation of her bosses, Estes tried to talk to the student she was told was the ringleader. He denied any wrongdoing.
She said she asked the school to investigate the social media posts and to talk to the students involved. She was told the school does not monitor what is being said on the internet. Estes says such monitoring has been done when students were bullying one another.
Estes suggested she could come out to her students to end speculation. District officials told her to wait until it became absolutely necessary, she said.
The school district issued a statement when asked for comment: "A priority for the Rocklin Unified School District is to ensure that all our students, staff and family members feel welcome, safe and supported. We respect the rights and diversity of everyone in our RUSD family. However, since this matter involves the potential for litigation, we can't respond further."
Then others started to post vulgar comments to a YouTube channel she was using as part of work on her master's degree. The post included a derogatory name for a gay woman.
Estes said she received a number of notifications that students were following that channel, which has no mention of her sexuality.
She sent screenshots to the school administration.
"This is now invading my personal life," she told them. "This is really a problem. I really need some support."
She said none came.
But it was a class report given by an eighth-grade girl that Estes says was a breaking point.
"It was January," Estes said. "I was determined it would be a fresh start."
She assigned her students a positive lesson: Write a report about how you would create a utopia and give a class presentation. When it was the girl's turn, she said her utopia would not include gay marriage because it was bad. Her paper used a derogatory word to describe gay people, among other inflammatory things, Estes said.
The students reacted with clapping and cheers, obviously looking to her for reaction, Estes said.
"I have never lost control of my classroom before," said Estes, who has been a teacher for 12 years.
Estes said she met with the principal again. "I think we need to do better," Estes said she told her. "I don’t feel supported, and we’ve talked about this since September and still nothing."
The principal called it a teachable moment and said she wasn't sure what Estes wanted school officials to do.
"What I wanted from my administration was to utilize the discipline matrix that I worked hard to establish," said Estes, who helped build the anti-bullying curriculum used with students. "If there is hate speech, students are given a consequence – detention or other consequences. Speaking so hatefully deserved more than a teachable moment."
The student told school administrators that she didn't know she used a derogatory term, Estes said.
"It caused some insane levels of stress," Estes said of the situation. "I've been on mental health leave since January. Kids have been able to say and do what they want and I'm supposed to take it."
Dr. Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, says adults experience the same pain as children when they are the targets of cyberbullying.
"Across society we expect adults to be able to have thicker skin and more resilience and coping mechanisms to deal with mean comments," he said.
Although there hasn't been much research on students cyberbullying teachers, it does happen, Hinduja said. "Kids are living their lives online and will take to social media to express their displeasure or opinions, sometimes hurtful opinions."
He said sometime multiple students gang up on teachers. "It doesn't surprise me that a teacher would have to take a mental health leave," he said.
Hinduja said he would like to see each state Department of Education adopt cyberbullying regulations that also include protections for teachers.
In the meantime, Estes, who grew up in Rocklin and attended Spring View Middle School as a child, worries about LGBT youth in the district, which she says has a pattern of not recognizing or supporting LGBT issues.
She acknowledged the school district has done some training about tolerance for students since she has left, but said there is generally little enthusiasm for addressing the issue.
"As someone who entered this profession because she loves kids, it is incredibly sad to me to think that queer students within this district have witnessed this happening to an adult," she said.