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How schools are steering social media

Districts seek to balance creativity and experimentation with safety and privacy

Crafting a strong and well-balanced social media policy requires considerable time and effort. The policy must be flexible enough to accommodate new tech trends—such as anonymous messaging apps and livestreaming—yet thorough and specific enough to address a multitude of potentially troublesome scenarios involving students, faculty and staff.

When a few students at Eudora High School in Kansas used an anonymous Twitter account in 2013 to say horrible things about teachers, administrators and other students, there were repercussions in the halls of school the next day, with scuffles breaking out between students.

The district’s social media policy makes it clear that even when cyberbullying takes place off-campus, the district will respond if the acts create a hostile environment at school. The students involved were eventually identified and suspended.

But Eudora also recognizes the positive potential of social media for students, faculty and staff. For instance, Eudora’s local newspaper recently closed and students decided the high school newspaper’s Facebook page could publish sports stories and details on other events, says Kristin Magette, Eudora Schools’ director of communications.

“Teachers are encouraged to experiment and try different things, but they are operating with a net,” she says.

Striking a balance

Districts that are large enough to have a communications director on staff often find that person is the logical leader of social media policy planning. They partner with superintendents to bring stakeholders together, consult with legal counsel and present policy recommendations to school boards for approval.

Communications directors also partner with district technology leaders to create cultures that leverage social media and enforce policies on district networks. Scott McLeod, an associate professor of administrative leadership and policy studies at the University of Colorado Denver, says too many districts write policies that have a restrictive and punitive tone.

From 2012 to 2016, McLeod was director of learning, teaching and innovation for the Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency, which serves 40 small districts in northwest Iowa. Many administrators there said they were implementing 1-to-1 programs because they wanted students to be critical thinkers, technologically fluent and globally connected, he says.

“But then the policies, instead of sending the message ‘yes, be powerful and go do meaningful work,’ were all about no, no, no,” McLeod says. “The policies are working against some of the stated learning goals.”

Districts with a different mindset focus on empowerment, he adds. Instead of writing an “acceptable use policy,” he has encouraged districts to write an “empowered use policy.” It could say, “Yes, you have the right to connect to others to facilitate your learning. Yes, teachers have the right to use online environments to further their career goals,” he says.

Protecting student privacy is paramount, but using social media as a contemporary communication tool is also very important, says Brad Saron, superintendent of the Sun Prairie Area School District in Wisconsin.

“I like the concept of ‘yes, and’ when you are trying to figure out the push-pull between those opposite poles,” he says. “Yes, we are going to leverage social media as a modern communication tool to inform the public, engage parents and allow students to dialog. We also are going to protect students’ privacy.”

In Eudora, for example, a parent called a principal upset because a coach was posting team practices on a YouTube channel to help the players see their progress over the season. But this parent’s child was embarrassed by the way her body looked in the videos.

Magette—author of the book Embracing Social Media: A Practical Guide to Manage Risk and Leverage Opportunity—says there was nothing objectively inappropriate about posting the videos, but there was a disconnect between intent and reception. “That helps us become more sensitive,” she adds.

The videos were shared with the team, but not posted to the rest of the world on social media.

Focus on behavior, not technology

The Radnor Township School District near Philadelphia first created a social media task force of employees at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year. They held focus groups with parents, students and teachers; conducted a district-wide survey; and researched policies in the private sector and other districts.

Still, Radnor faces issues all the time as new social media applications appear. The district’s firewall blocks services such as Facebook, but teachers can override the block to use social media in classrooms.

“You can’t take a broad brush to social media,” says Michael Petitti, the district’s director of communications. “You have to examine each service for its merits.”

The district is currently figuring out how students can use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram productively. The district’s website offers several recommendations for teachers. One involves creating Facebook pages for famous historical figures. Petitti’s advice to districts still crafting social media rules is to focus on behavior, not particular technologies.

“When we were creating our policy five years ago, livestreaming wasn’t a thing,” he says. “If we had made our policy specific to the services that existed in 2012, we’d be having to rewrite it now.”

Once a policy is created, it is important that it has visibility with faculty and staff.

At every orientation for new teachers in August, Petitti runs a session on social media policy. Part of that is going over rules about when it is inappropriate to speak on behalf of the district on social media platforms.

Off-campus overreach?

Superintendents and principals continue to struggle with how to respond when students misbehave on social media off-campus or post pictures of themselves doing illegal activities such as drinking alcohol.

“The chatter on social media is endless, and it is impossible to monitor 24/7,” Radnor’s Petitti says. “But when we hear of things affecting the instructional day, we take action. We communicate with parents, have speakers come in or have support for students in the counseling center.”

But McLeod warns against overreaching when regulating off-campus speech and behavior. The legal standard for taking action is when the behavior disrupts the school environment in a material and substantial way. When administrators over-interpret this they risk punishing a student for minor incidents—and getting into trouble themselves.

For instance, in 2014 a school district in Camden County, New Jersey, agreed to settle a student’s lawsuit by paying legal fees, dropping any punishment and clarifying its social media policy after the student claimed she was punished for tweeting profane comments about her principal in “purely off-campus speech,” according to the lawsuit.

Still, several administrators say their responses can serve as a learning opportunity when students make mistakes online. Joe Sanfelippo, superintendent in the Fall Creek School District in Wisconsin, says students on sports teams post updates on Twitter about their activities.

On a recent “senior skip day,” teams used foul language to criticize students who didn’t show up for school. The tweets appear on 50-inch monitors in the K12 school.

“I found one of these students and explained that we have 5-year olds who can read that,” Sanfelippo says. “He was shocked and five minutes later it was all gone. I didn’t have to call the parents or shut down the account. We treated them with respect. We talked about it and moved on.”

In some districts there is still a lot of fear about even small steps such as creating a school Facebook page. Many superintendents do not have Facebook or Twitter accounts, says Magette, of Eudora.

“You have to be comfortable supervising people who have skills and knowledge you don’t have,” she says. “Some leaders are much more comfortable in that zone than others.”


David Raths is a Philadelphia-based writer who regularly covers edtech.