Lives destroyed by just 43 words
IN the moment Donna Baluskas's life was ruined, she couldn't have been more comfortable.
The hardworking nurse lay, propped up in bed with her laptop resting on her knee.
Winding down for the night in the tidy home she shared with husband Miguel and their son in Mount Tamborine, an idyllic hamlet high in the Gold Coast hinterland, she was mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, when a post for a Tracey Brose Change.org petition caught her eye.
Tracey Brose: She certainly knew that name.
Mrs Baluskas had crossed paths with the Tamborine Mountain State High School principal two years earlier - an encounter that was both brief and bitter.
Dozens of parents and even some ex-students had already commented on the Change.org petition and a related Facebook page, supporting Mrs Brose, who had been mysteriously suspended from duty a few weeks earlier.
On the night of March 7, 2016, Mrs Baluskas added her own opinion.
She typed 43 fateful words, then hit 'post'.
As she drifted off to sleep that warm autumn night, Mrs Baluskas had no idea it would be the most expensive three sentences of her life.
For the dedicated mum and a handful of other parents, life as they knew it would be destroyed in an astonishing collision of technology, defamation law and ultimately courtrooms.
It's the most modern of scandals - but as the court has heard the fallout for nearly everyone involved has been nothing less than Shakespearean: People on the brink of suicide; families bankrupted and an idyllic Queensland community torn apart.
One father left so broke he was forced to borrow $15 from his teenage son to buy petrol so he could get to work.
It's a case which has exposed the breathtaking naivety of everyday Aussies who casually spill vitriol online, while also shining a searing light on the laws which allowed a petty community dispute to metastasise into one of Queensland's most astonishing and bizarre court cases.
And, for everyone involved, it's far from over.
"I WAS TREATED LIKE A PRIZE COW"
"Our community is in turmoil,'' the urgent missive began.
When he pressed send on the post to his newly-established Support Tracey Brose Facebook page at 3.22pm on March 7, 2016, Tamborine Mountain State High School's P&C president, David Hows, could not have foreseen how melodramatic the message would seem compared to what lay in store.
The page was equal parts rallying call and cry for help.
For three frustrating weeks the P&C had been demanding an explanation from Education Department officials who had suspended long-serving principal Mrs Brose on full pay on February 15.
The fallout from her mysterious removal was nothing short of dire, wrote Mr Hows.
"Many of our students, teachers and families are suffering from uncertainty, distraction, fear and anxiety. The effect on student and teacher morale is likely to flow into poorer education results this year," he wrote.
The page shared a link to a change.org petition, calling for "A fast and fair resolution for Tracey Brose", urging parents to sign it in a bid to convince then-Education minister Kate Jones to reinstate Mrs Brose.
"Tracey has served the Tamborine Mountain Community for 16 years and her leadership as principal has formed the bedrock for the quality of our young people who leave high school well educated, disciplined and ready to enter the next phase of their lives," Mr Hows intoned.
In just 36 hours 494 people signed the petition in support of Mrs Brose - but as the court has heard it quickly became a lightning rod for others who were critical of Mrs Brose.
Some of the criticism is included as an exhibit to an affidavit filed by Mrs Brose's lawyer during the proceedings.
"F--- that fat bullying b----!", Raychel Lewis wrote.
"Most degrading person I've ever known, she's suspended for a reason", Cameron Turkington spat (in fact, as the court was told the suspension was only temporary and Mrs Brose was reinstated four months later).
"Good riddance to a lying manipulative deceitful narcissistic air thief," Rebecca Davies wrote, while Aphrah Arday posted: "The fact is she's abusive."
Ella Treno claimed Mrs Brose used to "pick on the kids she didn't like and bully them until they left or she kicked them out without a proper reason … you could drop a pen on the floor and she'll suspended (sic) you 'for moving out of your seat'."
In a long post, former student Rhiannon Davies said she was always supported by Mrs Brose, because she was a good student "but my peers didn't get this luxury".
The priority was to "reflect positively on the school and not actually educate everyone", she claimed.
"Too often do we allow our greed for funding/bragging rights to overshadow human decency,'' she wrote.
"I did resent being treated like a prize cow to be used only for the advancement of the school. I resented being praised publicly but put down privately. I believe that the Brose way of breaking students with archaic rules and restrictions got in the way of learning.
"I would miss classes due to overblown assemblies on uniform twice weekly in my final year. I had Miss Brose physically measure my skirt length on more than one occasion (which by the way I never altered to be short or anything).
"It is easy for parents and the community to stand by Mrs Brose - she does get good results, but is that all we care about."
She ended her post by saying: "I do not support fascists".
None of Mrs Brose's vocal critics realised they were playing a virtual game of Russian roulette.
The gun was social media. The trigger a computer keyboard. The bullets? Their words.
Alerted to the petition by her brother and sister the day it was launched - Mrs Brose was watching.
But these critics were among the incredibly lucky ones - people who vehemently criticised Mrs Brose, but were not picked as people who would be asked to pay for their words. For others, those words would come reverberating back.
By March 10, Mrs Brose had had enough and asked for the petition to be pulled offline, court documents reveal.
A day later her husband Peter Brose asked Mr Hows to remove the entire Facebook page.
On March 13 the Facebook page came down, ending with a brief note stating it had "served its purpose".
NEXT UP: PRINCIPAL FROM HELL, OR HELL OF A PRINCIPAL?
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