An “exceptional” young PE teacher was sacked for sending four Facebook messages to sixth year pupils.
Nicholas Torsney is now fighting for his career in front of the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) as a result of breaching the profession’s ultra-strict social media policy.
The treatment of the 27-year-old by West Lothian Council sparked unrest at his old school, where almost 50 teachers put their names to a document protesting his sacking.
One of his colleagues at St Margaret’s Academy, Livingston, told a hearing of the GTCS in Edinburgh this week the case was “blown out of proportion”.
All the messages were sent to sixth year pupils, believed to be over 18, and two of them were sent after the students had completed their exams and effectively left school.
The hearing was told the messages – sent to male and female students – related to a prom night and golfing trip. Two of them were signed off “Xx”.
A teaching union said yesterday the case showed the need for clearer guidance on the use of social media by teachers.
Mr Torsney, from Livingston, is accused of being unfit to teach after sending Facebook messages to students in September 2012 and June 2013.
The first message read: “”Hey man, u looking forward to this ski trip? I’m not…sorry I’ve messaged u xx”.
The same day he texted the same student: “I should not have sent u a message. Sorry xx”.
As a result of these texts, Mr Torsney was given a final written warning by education chiefs at West Lothian Council.
In June the following year, after the sixth years had completed their exams and were no longer in school, he texted two female students: “So how was prom then? Xx”.
A second message, to a male student, read: “Hope you enjoyed Prom mate. Me U and Downham need to go and play golf soon.”
The teacher was sacked from St Margaret’s as a result of these texts. After appealing, he was reinstated and given a job at another West Lothian school.
Despite that, the case is now being prosecuted by the GTCS, which could strike Mr Torsney off if the case against him is found proved.
Mr Torsney told the GTCS hearing this week that he genuinely believed the students had left school and, therefore, the ban on social media contact did not apply. He said he did not realise that the GTCS rules go up to the final day of term.
“I thought they had left school the previous month after their final exam,” he said.
“I contacted the school office to ask for their home phone numbers so I could arrange for them to speak to the new classes and I was told they might not have their details because they were no longer pupils.
“They were wearing visitors badges when they came into school to see me a few days after the exams which also led me to believe they were no longer considered to be pupils.”
He added: “I am massively remorseful and completely devastated at my mistake. I no longer use any form of social media and I have taken classes on child protection to ensure that I will never come close to repeating the mistake.”
Karen Rafferty, 46, who worked alongside Mr Torsney at St Margaret’s Academy, told the hearing: “It was blown out of proportion. It dented his confidence and he was not the same when he returned.”
“He was a great teacher and always maintained professional boundaries with the pupils.”
Mrs Rafferty revealed that she and 47 other teachers at St Magaret’s put forward their signatures in support of his position.
A fellow PE teacher at the school, David Down, 33, said: “I believe the messages should be seen in their true context.
“Lots of my male friends would send me a message with xx on it but I wouldn’t kiss them if they were in the room. I interpret it as a way of signing off a message.
“Nick is an exceptional teacher, an example of this is one of his intermediate classes which had 14 pupils in it, he got them 12 As and 2 Bs.”
The head teacher of his current school, Katrina Hetch, said: “I have been delighted to have Nick as part of the school. He goes above and beyond what is expected of him and he fulfills his duty with a passion and enthusiasm I would like to see in all my staff.”
Lawyer Alastair Milne, defending the teacher, said: “In terms of the evidence provided by experienced staff, Mr Torsney is an excellent teacher who has gone beyond what is expected of him in helping his students.
“We are not dealing with someone who is unfit to teach, the evidence shows that his daily contact shows no sign of inappropriate behaviour.”
Gillian Sim, case presenter for the GTCS, said: “Fitness to teach isn’t simply about being able to teach well. It’s about maintaining professional standards and fulfilling your duty as a role model.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association said: “More needs to be done to set out guidance for what teachers can and cannot do on social media.”
“Social media is a very dangerous place for a teacher and we have real concerns about it.
“It is a common mode of communication but the rules and regulations need to be clear, teachers can lose their careers because of social media.”
Mr Torsney, who graduated from Edinburgh University in 2009, has been with his girlfriend for eight years and the couple are expecting their first baby.
The case continues.