Lauren Miranda’s nightmare began as a school day like any other. She was teaching math during first period at Bellport middle school on Long Island, New York, when she received a text from a friend in another building. There was a nude photo going around, and kids were saying it was her.
“I just thought it was impossible,” Miranda told the Guardian. “I was almost offended that she thought it was a picture of me.”
But when she arrived in the principal’s office, he spun the computer monitor around to show her the image in question. There it was: a picture of her topless on the screen. She had sent the picture to one and one person only: a male colleague she was dating.
“It’s one of those things you read about in the newspaper. You never expect it to be you,” she said.
That Friday, 11 January 2019, changed her life forever, sparking a lively conversation about citizen rights, privacy in the age of sexting and social media and even the right to be sexual – with Miranda at the center of it.
“I’ve never wanted to do anything else,” she said of her dream of being a math teacher. “I was so proud of myself and so proud of everything that I’ve accomplished being 25 years old and about to be granted tenure – all of these milestones were ripped away from me because of a picture of my upper body.”
Miranda was suspended immediately after the 11 January meeting with the principal. The school board voted to fire her several months later, following a closed-door meeting in March.
Now she’s suing the school district and its administrators for her job back or for $3m in restitution for gender discrimination, claiming in court documents that they failed to conduct a “full and adequate” review.
The school district declined to discuss the case, saying in a statement from the superintendent, Joseph Giani: “The district does not comment on active litigation.”
The photo at the center of the controversy was one Miranda had taken at home in 2016, sitting on the floor before a mirror, a towel draped across her legs and her breasts exposed.
A letter recommending her termination faulted her for having “caused, allowed or otherwise made it possible” for the photo of her to circulate, or for “failing to take adequate precautionary measures” in preventing its circulation.
Miranda had only shared the image with a colleague she was dating, according to court documents. “I gave one person permission to have this picture. How it got out I can only speculate but I never gave anyone aside from one person permission to have my personal image,” she said.
She had told the school as much, but said it didn’t seem to register. The male teacher in question was not disciplined or discharged for the photos purportedly disseminated to students, according to a notice of complaint.
The man she sent it to has not been named publicly, so his side of things cannot be told. Miranda said the story isn’t about the man she sent the photo to, whom she is no longer dating.
It’s about how what should have been an innocuous photo spun out of control, threatening to ruin her career. And how different she thinks it would be for a man in her position.
“It’s always the boys hurting the girls and the girls taking the brunt of it,” she said. “Having this picture gain so much traction really shows the disparity between how women are viewed and how men are viewed, and how men can openly sexualize women and how it’s a real problem.”
Before the topless photo surfaced publicly, Miranda had received high praise for her work as a middle school math teacher, according to a performance evaluation shared by her lawyer, John Ray, and seemed on track to receive tenure the following year.
Afterwards, however, school officials told Miranda she could no longer serve as a “role model” for students, according to Ray. After all, the image was an unwelcome distraction and not something students could unsee, regardless of how it got out.
The case is a personal one for Miranda, who grew up nearby in a small beach town on the southern shore of Long Island and has wanted to be a teacher for as long as she can remember.
“I started there when I was student teaching in college,” she said of the school, “so to now not be treated with any type of dignity or respect or even be treated in a professional manner, hit that much harder.”
She didn’t set out to become a poster child for women’s rights, but she hopes there’s a teachable moment in helping students navigate a new era in digital privacy.
Last fall GQ declared “The age of sending nudes is upon us”, and the same month Miranda was voted out of her job nearly 50 students were caught sharing nude photos of their classmates at a Georgia high school.
A study done by security software firm McAfee in the wake of former congressman Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal found 70% of people ages 18 to 24 receive sexually suggestive photos and messages. And numbers among young people appear to be on the rise.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has already been swept up in a fake nude photo scandal. And a real one involving Jeff Bezos lost steam when his would-be extorters realized that in 2019, a semi-clothed photo just isn’t that compromising.
Not if you’re a man, anyway.
For Miranda, it still cost her job, even as – like so many other Americans who’ve seen their photos circulated without their permission – she has said she has no knowledge of how her image leaked.
No wonder she has received an outpouring of sympathy in the community and online.
“Because you can’t have a private sex life *and* be a role model at the same time, apparently? this story makes me want to bash my head against a wall,” tweeted Ej Dickson, a writer at Rolling Stone.
“How are we still here in the discourse,” tweeted the writer Rachel Syme.
Locally, protesters have voiced support for Miranda, including the activist known as Sister Leona, who did so topless and interviewed with Vice.
Miranda never intended to become the cause du jour, but the central irony of combatting her firing is that she has had to fight her case against the private photo that ruined her life when it became public by going even more public with it.
That hasn’t come naturally to the 25-year-old teacher, who has described herself as “a very private person” – she would rather be teaching math. But it does appear to be what her new lesson plan requires.
“It’s a huge problem, even just in terms of adolescents not taking the severity of the situation into consideration because they have no education on it. They don’t know what’s appropriate, how to appropriately use social media, how harmful and detrimental it could be,” she said.
In court, however, the case will probably hinge less on digital privacy than gender parity and, specifically, the sexualizing of women’s nipples while men are free to flaunt their chests.
“At the end of the day it really comes down to: the picture is just a picture of my upper body – it’s not offensive,” Miranda said. “A guy wouldn’t have the same problem. If a male teacher took the same picture with a towel around his waist sitting in his room getting ready, he wouldn’t be fired.”