Natalie Munroe strolled into Central Bucks East the morning of February 9th as if it were any other Wednesday. As she wove her way through the Doylestown high school where she’d taught English for nearly five years, she noticed two teachers whispering to each other in the hall. They looked frantic. She kept walking.
“Something’s going on,” she thought. “I’ll ask them about it later.” After the first bell rang, she headed to the planning center, where she’d prep for her classes that day. But before she started working, another teacher came to the door and motioned Munroe over.
“Everyone’s talking about it,” the teacher fretted. “The students found your blog.”
“They found my blog?” Munroe asked, startled by the panic in her colleague’s voice. She quickly tried to recall the posts she’d written; not one raised a red flag. At most, she figured she’d have to answer some awkward questions, that people would talk about it for a while. And then everyone would move on. “Whatever,” she thought.
Even so, she opened her school computer, logged onto Blogger.com and promptly took down the blog. But a few minutes later, when she saw the school secretary in the doorway—sent by principal Abe Lucabaugh to collect her—she went numb.
Walking into Lucabaugh’s office, she spotted them immediately—her blog posts, printed out and stacked on his desk.
“Did you write these?” Lucabaugh asked, stern-faced and solemn.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Did you write them at school?”
Lucabaugh then read a sentence from one post out loud: “I’m being a renegade right now, living on the edge and, um, blogging at work.”
“Look,” Munroe said, “if it says that, I guess I did. I’m telling you I didn’t routinely sit here and write blogs at school. Like, ever.”
“We can find out,” Lucabaugh warned. He explained that she’d be suspended with pay while the school investigated, then followed her to her office, where she gathered her belongings. She handed him a pile of photocopies.
“I just made these. They’re for the third block,” she explained; she didn’t want her students to fall behind because of this little snafu.
Lucabaugh led her into the hallway as students filtered to their next class. Munroe saw one of her students walking toward her.
“Oh,” the student cracked, “that sucks, Mrs. Munroe.”
WEEKS LATER, NATALIE MUNRO sits in a Panera Bread in Feasterville that isn’t her usual Panera Bread (too many students hang out there). Nine months pregnant, she is tired and huge and eating a salad, wishing the baby would come out already so she’d have something positive to focus on. It hasn’t been an easy month, and frankly, she can’t believe it all went down the way it did.
“I wish this hullabaloo hadn’t happened at all,” she says.
In fact, it wasn’t until she saw her photo on the five o’clock news on the day she was suspended that she realized this “hullabaloo” was big.
NBC 10 outlined the basics—details that would be repeated over the next several weeks, from Doylestown’s Intelligencer, to the Philadelphia Inquirer, to the Associated Press, to “Good Morning America,” to Bill Maher, to CNN, to the BBC:
A teacher from Bucks County had blogged that her students were “a bunch of lazy jerks,” “out of control” and “rude.” In one post, she listed comments she wished she could write on report cards: “lazy asshole,” “frightfully dim,” “rat-like,” “Just as bad as his sibling. Don’t you know how to raise kids?”
“I made the determination to suspend her from her duties,” Lucabaugh told NBC 10, taped in his office at East.
“I think she should be fired,” senior Helen Rowland chided on air.
Munroe, typically opinionated and chatty, watched her TV that evening in silence, mouth hanging open, stunned not only by how her blog was being interpreted, but that the story had gone so public so fast. She’d spent the day in lockdown in her Warminster home, towels hung over the picture window, ignoring knocks from NBC 10, CBS 3 and newspaper reporters.
“I was seeing footage of students in school,” says Munroe. “Someone said, ‘Okay, press, come on in’? I didn’t know what the hell was going on.”
“We were so over our heads,” says her husband, Brian, a Radnor policeman on medical leave. He watched the news alongside his wife and tried to distract their three-year-old, Lily, who’d kept asking all day why strangers were walking around their yard.
Days later, flanked by an attorney, Munroe, 30, would finally spill her side to the cameras: She never thought anyone would find the blog. She never named any kids, the school, the district or the state where she lived. She never even named herself, posting as “Natalie M.,” though she did include one photo—a personal snapshot taken in her living room that was now being downloaded by strangers and plastered on TV. Her attorney noted that the First Amendment protected Munroe. In other words, she’d done nothing wrong.
“I’m sorry it was taken out of context. But I’m not sorry I wrote it,” she explained on TV and in newspapers and on radio shows. It’s a stance she’s still not backing down from now, two and a half months later: “I stand by what I wrote.”
Lots of people have applauded her for it. In the media firestorm that erupted, MSNBC conducted a poll of more than 84,000 people: Ninety-six percent thought Munroe should not have been suspended. Supporters from across the country wrote “Go Natalie!” on her blog.
But back in Bucks, students blogged and vlogged and texted and tweeted a different story. They held a pep rally, which they filmed and posted on YouTube. They commented on pro- and anti-Natalie Facebook pages that popped up, and for a group that felt so maligned by how they were characterized online, students were even more vulgar in their posts:
… Natalie Munroe is a sexually frustrated cunt whos going through menopause and is throwing a huge bitch fliip and is causing more problems than the holocaust.
While everyone tapped away at their keyboards, the scandal at Central Bucks East—the ninth-highest-performing high school in the state, with SAT scores 209 points above the national average—had already evolved into a sign-of-the-times saga. But neither the players nor the gawkers could agree on what, exactly, that sign was: Bad, burned-out teachers? Coddling school administrators? Entitled kids? Enabling parents?
It might have been all of that, but maybe more than anything, the troubling issue was watching what happens when private thoughts become public. After all, Munroe wasn’t the first teacher in history to think unkind things about her students, and she wasn’t the first teacher to vent to friends about those feelings. But she was operating in the world of new media, where modern-day sounding boards aren’t just teachers’ lounges, but Blogger, Facebook and Twitter.
And that changed all the rules.
MUNROE LOVED TEACHING. It wasn’t always easy for her to get up there in front of a class; she’d never liked being the center of attention. But she relished all the behind-the-scenes planning—from picking out bulletin-board borders at the teachers’ store to figuring out cool ways to teach tough subjects. She blogged about that stuff, too—the good things, like how pumped she felt when a concept clicked with the kids.
“They come up with an idea and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh … yes!’” she says. “And you’re so proud to be part of that.”
Of the 84 posts she’d written since she started blogging in August 2009, only 24 had anything to do with school. The rest involved muffin recipes, Gerard Butler, the Diaper Genie—general life stuff. And that, really, was the whole reason she’d started blogging in the first place.
A friend had prodded her into it as a way to keep in touch. Plus, the friend knew that Munroe loved to write. In fact, after earning an English degree from Rosemont in 2003, she thought of trying book publishing but quickly realized she was far more passionate about The Canterbury Tales than about permissions. She shouldn’t have been surprised—she came from a family of teachers: her mom, her uncle, her aunt. Teaching was in her blood. After getting a master’s in education from Arcadia and student-teaching at Council Rock South, she landed a job at East in 2006, psyched to finally have a classroom of her own.
“At first, I thought, ‘This is the best job ever,’” she says.
But the more she taught, the more trying the job became. “When you have 70 papers to grade? That’s when you wish you taught math,” she says.
Of course, she blogged about the bad days, too. She knew that her close friends who subscribed to her blog—and there were only seven, which brought her total followers, including Munroe and her husband, to nine—would sympathize when those tough days got the best of her, like the day she punished three students: one for saying “fuck,” one for saying “shittin’,” and another for bending paper clips into the form of two people having sex. Or the day when the kid whose mother she’d e-mailed about his sleeping in class said, “You know what? You e-mailed my parents about me, and you know what they did? Nothing!”
“It’s not all kids,” Munroe says. “I teach about 180 kids a year, and about 10 are tough.” But she knew that stories about the tough kids made the most entertaining posts—the sort of trials teachers had gossiped about since the beginning of time. Blogging, to her, had become almost a substitute for calling a friend on the phone. Or sending a private e-mail. And though blogs on Blogger could actually be set to “private,” Munroe kept hers public.
“I figured, ‘What’s the likelihood anyone’s going to find it? Very slim,’” she says.
Coming upon it randomly would have been nearly impossible. The title was obscure: “Where are we going & why are we in this handbasket?” Students couldn’t have searched keywords like “Munroe” or “Central Bucks East” or even “Pennsylvania”—-none of those appeared on the blog. Plus, from the start, it had been so hard for her friends to find, they needed Munroe to send them the exact link in order to read it.
“I had enough presence of mind to think, ‘Was it possible? Yes. Was it probable? No,’” she says. “But I thought, ‘Just in case, we’ll keep it anonymous.’ I really, really, really never in my wildest dreams thought that anybody other than those seven people would read it, ever. Nor, if somebody else did, would it even matter.”
IT STARTED TO GO VIRAL on Facebook Tuesday, February 8th. Students madly posted and re-posted a link someone had found—the URL of a blog they swore was written by Mrs. Munroe, a.k.a. “Natalie M.” Dozens of parents and students sent heads-up e-mails to the school principal: “This is being spread over the Internet.”
Students later claimed they knew the blog existed, that Munroe had off-handedly- mentioned it in class. A student actually told one teacher that he’d accidentally found the blog. Months earlier, while searching for a class blog Munroe had also set up on Blogger, he came across one authored by “Natalie M.”
“I couldn’t find the class blog, but I found this,” he told Munroe the next day. “Is it yours?”
“Yes,” he said she told him. “It’s a private blog. Just for friends of mine.”
But by midnight on February 8th, it seemed as if all 1,650 kids at East had clicked the link. Some even snapped screenshots of the pages so that if Munroe took it down, they’d still have proof. They read it all: She chastised administrators and colleagues—“Fuck them!” “Assholes”; she labeled students “dishonest shitwads,” “a disgusting brood of insolent, unappreciative, selfish brats,” “the devil’s spawn.”
In the January 21, 2010, post that would soon become infamous, she explained that, while she typically wrote “cooperative in class” on most report cards, she wished she could write other things: “Rude beligerent [sic] argumentative fuck,” “Am concerned your kid is going to come in one day and open fire on the school. (Wish I was kidding.),” “Dresses like a streetwalker,” “There’s no other way to say this: I hate your kid.”
That Tuesday night, students punched back online:
Jokes on you because this link is being cycled throughout the students of CB East via facebook. Have fun applying for unemployment. Sincerely, ‘cooperative in class.’
… [S]he probably found a piece of toilet paper in the trash that a guy cleaned up after himself with and impregnated herself.
I originally didn’t completely loath you like the rest of the junior class, but my feelings have now changed.
Principal Lucabaugh didn’t read any of it until the following morning. By then, messages from angry parents filled his voice-mail, some requesting their kids be removed from Munroe’s classroom. He printed out the blog posts and started reading.
“I couldn’t imagine that an educator would feel this way—and then post it with that kind of vitriol,” he says.
He actually hoped it was a mistake, that the teacher wasn’t Munroe. He thought he’d been so clear, warning his staff to be careful about what they posted online. But the school’s official policy applied only to using district computers: “Employees may not use the district network, computer devices or other resources for personal activities.”
The website for Pennsylvania’s teacher’s union lists clearer guidelines: “Each time you post a photograph or information on the Web, make sure you would gladly show it to the following people: your mother, your students, your superintendent, the editor of the New York Times.” Further, it states that an employee’s speech is not protected online if “it causes disruption in the workplace.”
What defined “disruption”? Students rushing around with copies of a teacher’s blog? News vans parking outside school? Students asking teachers, “Do all of you think this way about us?”
IN MORE THAN SIX YEARS at East, Abe Lucabaugh, 38, had never been up against a controversy like this, with reporters knocking on his office door and irate phone calls from people on the other side of the globe. He’d certainly never had so many students worrying about how their teachers felt about them, asking, point-blank, “Do teachers really make fun of us when we ask a lot of questions?”
He quickly realized that figuring out what to do about Munroe was only part of his problem. He also had to deal with his kids. And parents. And, of course, the media.
At first, he asked teachers to avoid engaging in conversation about the situation, so as not to fuel the fire. But as calls from reporters kept coming, he realized he needed to tell the kids what was up. By then, he was well aware that even though Munroe didn’t use the kids’ names in her blog, everyone knew exactly who many of them were.
“My son’s the one she wrote about who annoyed her when he asked her every day for help,” explained one parent over the phone.
One mother called in tears. Her daughter had come home crying: “Mom, I’m the one who always stays after class.”
“Our daughter has special needs,” the mother wept to Lucabaugh. “We’ve done the best we can. Her father died. I work three jobs. My child dresses the best she can. I know my child has asked Mrs. Munroe for help. It breaks my heart to have my child belittled in this way.”
“The kids were genuinely, personally hurt,” Lucabaugh says. “They needed to hear that one person did not represent a universal sentiment.”
Two days after the incident, he addressed the student body on East’s TV.
“We believe in you,” Lucabaugh exclaimed, dressed in a suit, but looking young and fit and sympathetic enough to garner rock-star status among many of the kids. “We’re proud of you. We realize you’re not perfect. I’m sorry these things are out there. I’m sorry it became public. Your teachers care about you. Hold your heads high. Be who you are. We’ll get through this.”
But “this” just kept getting bigger. Within days, Lucabaugh’s problem had leapt onto the national scene, fueled by the availability of the blog, still cached on Google. Any reporter could read it and scour it to find new juicy bits to quote. The Associated Press picked it up. It was discussed on “The View.” Influential bloggers weighed in. The media salivated over the chance to report on something other than teachers sleeping with students and students beating each other up. This was new: teachers blogging for all the world to read about their charges, these damn “kids today,” these privileged, rude, disrespectful American teens who think the world owes them something.
“It’s not that those students don’t exist,” Lucabaugh says, still cautiously measured. “But I don’t think those students represent the majority.” Especially not at East, which he describes as “almost utopian.” Last year, the school graduated 99 percent of its senior class; 94 percent went on to college.
Even so, during that first week, Lucabaugh received more than 500 calls and e-mails from all over the country, berating him: “How dare you keep this woman from speaking her mind?” “You don’t support teachers!” “People like you stamp out the spirit of fine educators like Natalie Munroe!”
One call he took caught him completely off guard: “I’m buying a plane ticket, I’m coming to your school … and I’m ripping the spine out of your back … if you had one.”
“The school’s address is 2804 Holicong Road,” Lucabaugh replied. “Come any time. I’ll be here.”
The standing-room-only crowd at the Central Bucks school board meeting on February 22nd was just as fired up. Parents spilled out of the room, peering at the podium from perches in the hall. The main draw was Munroe’s “unprofessional comments.”
School superintendent N. Robert Laws announced that the district would make a decision about her employment while she was on maternity leave.
“Ms. Munroe has lost the confidence, trust and respect of her students, their parents and her colleagues,” he added. “Ms. Munroe, by her own actions, has made it impossible for her to teach in this district.”
MUNROE FOUND OUT that her future would be decided during her maternity leave while watching the school board meeting on TV.
Since being escorted from the building, she’d not heard from the school, aside from a few “hang in there” texts from colleagues. As soon as she started to defend her blog to the press, those messages stopped.
When reporters—supposedly alerted to the story through a tweet sent by a parent or student—first showed up at her house that Wednesday, her husband called attorney Steve Rovner, a family friend, to see if they might need to hire him.
There was no case … yet. But if the district fired her, there might be. What would be the “just cause”? That she blogged at least once on school time? That she took the blog down using her school computer?
“We’d subpoena school records to see how often other teachers logged on each day to respond to personal e-mail,” says Rovner, whose Feasterville office is covered with framed 8-by-10 glossies of him posing with the rich and famous—presidents, movie stars, David Brenner.
Rovner thought the legal line was plain: “The school may not agree with what she wrote, but she had the right to write it.”
When they spoke that afternoon, Rovner laid out Munroe’s options: “You can sit quiet and do nothing and let the press and school district and parents say whatever they want to say. Or you can get your side of the truth out there.”
Munroe didn’t waste time. On February 13th, she was interviewed on Fox’s “Justice with Judge Jeanine” show. On Monday, she appeared on “Fox & Friends.” That week, she did “Good Morning America” (which had battled the “Today Show” to get her) and CNN. (She turned down Dr. Phil’s request to fly her and her students to his studio for a smackdown.)
Support from teachers around the country poured in: “There should be more teachers like you,” “You are my new hero,” “I … hope the ‘parents’ of those … problem kids get their act together and apologize to YOU!”—all in the 646 comments written in response to her blog. Her new blog, that is. Because three days after being suspended, Munroe did a very strange—or very strategic—thing: She started blogging again. This time, though, she had an agenda.- On her new site at Nataliemunroe.com, she composed her first post: “Bloggate—Day 1: The Scandal Begins.”
“There are serious problems with our education system today,” she wrote, “with the way that schools and school districts and students and parents take teachers who enter the education field full of life and hope and a desire to change the world and positively impact kids, and beat the life out of them and villainize them and blame them for everything—and those need to be brought to light. If this ‘scandal’ opens the door for that conversation, so be it.
“Let that conversation begin,” she typed. “Stay tuned here.”
WHEN EAST TEACHERS got wind that their scorned colleague had positioned herself as an education reformer, any sympathy for her disappeared.
“People got pretty disgusted,” says one teacher. Munroe had never been particularly popular; some thought she was arrogant and a complainer, with a wicked sharp tongue. She often ate lunch alone.
After her suspension, teachers worried that the media would spin the incident as a story about how terrible teachers are. When it became about how terrible kids are, many were flabbergasted.
“The kids at East are honestly the most compliant, respectful kids I’ve ever worked with,” says the teacher. “It’s really easy to say, ‘Kids are so rotten.’ I think it’s a shame; when we want to scapegoat why schools aren’t what they should be, we pick on people who have the least responsibility.” And of course, the students took it personally, as teenagers are developmentally wired to do, utterly convinced the entire world was calling them horrible people.
“These people were taking the side of someone who they never met, and trashing students they had never met,” says East sophomore Matt Eisenberg. “We were getting bummed out.”
But no matter how smart the kids were, or how many pep rallies they held, anyone in the world with Web access could argue that the students had already more than validated the things Munroe had written.
In comments on public Facebook pages, using their real names, listed as belonging to the “Central Bucks East High School” network, many of these “almost utopian” students let loose:
… she was retarded.
MS. MUNROE … YOUR A FUCKING TEACHER, NOW FUCKING ACT LIKE IT, YOUR 3 YR OLD DAUGHTER HAS MORE RESPECT THAN YOU!
Fuck capitalism, fuck communism, fuck the American dream, fuck America, fuck your blind faith, fuck society not the kids or the parents.
An East teacher defends them: “They don’t always make the right comment and don’t carry themselves as adults, because they’re not. They’re kids.”
It was a perfect storm. The kids understood all the fancy new media, but didn’t care about the risks of airing all their thoughts on it. And the adults? They understood the consequences, but not the medium where this whole thing had been playing out.
Principal Lucabaugh, for one, hadn’t seen any of the students’ comments online. As he wrote in response to an e-mail from a Munroe supporter: “I don’t belong to [F]acebook.”
ONE ADULT, THOUGH, seems to have figured it out.
Recently, rumors swirled in teachers’ lounges at East that Munroe had a book deal in the works. While she admits to being naive about the privacy of posting online, she isn’t naive about her future, especially now that she has Anna Caroline at home, born on March 26th. Her maternity leave ends in May.
“Hopefully, in the end, it will work out and I can teach again,” she says. “I have no control over it. What can I do?”
What she’s decided to do is something made possible by this brave new media world: She can build an online platform. She can take advantage of the national press and the fact that a Google search for “Natalie Munroe” yields nearly half a million results. She can keep writing online, where a 30-year-old with fewer than nine semesters of teaching under her belt can start the “conversation” about problems in education. More than 3,000 people “like” the “I Support Natalie Munroe” Facebook page. In mid-April, her new blog had 635 followers. There have been more than 100,000 visits to her site since she launched it, averaging about 400 views a day. Two recent posts have been viewed around 3,000 times each.
Maybe she doesn’t need to teach again.
On March 3rd, Natalie Munroe appeared on “Fox & Friends” for the second time. The show was running a segment on coddling kids. And they called in Natalie Munroe.
As an expert.