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School social media policies juggle safety with free speech

School districts try to craft social media policies that prevent misuse but don't interfere with free speech or educational benefits
School districts with social media policies unanimously prohibit the online sharing of student information and data, such as test scores, as well as information on other district personnel.
School districts with social media policies unanimously prohibit the online sharing of student information and data, such as test scores, as well as information on other district personnel.

It probably won’t be long before you hear about the next disturbing incident of a teacher or other school employee contacting a student inappropriately on social media. It might involve inappropriate postings on a personal Facebook page, ill-advised texting with students, or a highly public verbal attack on colleagues or supervisors.

An illustrative example: Last December, a former high school teacher who had worked as a substitute for six months in the Shamokin (Pa.) School District during the 2010-2011 school year pleaded guilty to a felony count of unlawful contact with a minor. The teacher, who was terminated by the district in 2011, had sent more than 4,000 texts, many with sexual content, to four female students at his high school.

As the reach of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and texting on smartphones continues to expand, the inappropriate and at times illegal use of social media by district employees is bound to increase, say experts in the field.

“The challenge is that none of these tools are going away. They are going to permeate society,” says Scott McCleod, director of innovation for the Prairie Lakes (Iowa) Area Education Agency.

Some districts and states have responded by banning teachers from connecting with students personally on social media. In 2012, for example, the New York City Department of Education prohibited teachers from friending students on Facebook pages.

In Missouri, the state legislature not only banned outside use of social media, but restricted classroom use unless the sites could be viewed by school administrators and students’ parents. The law, widely considered by legal experts to be overly broad, was repealed later in the year.

Policies get bolder

In districts urban and rural, superintendents and school boards are getting input from teachers, IT personnel, and lawyers to craft social media policies that can prevent misuse but not interfere with free speech or the educational benefits of the technology.

“You definitely need a social media policy,” says Diana Bowen, a partner at Fisher and Phillips LLC, which provides legal advice and represents numerous districts. “You’d be surprised at the number of teachers texting kids at all hours of the night.”

“Teachers are misbehaving more easily,” adds Janet Decker, an assistant professor of education at Indiana University. “Facebook reaches a whole community instantaneously.”

The reasons for such misbehavior, Decker and others say, include the immediacy of social media and the ease of reaching others from a distance, both of which may encourage users to say things they would never say in person. Another problem is that users mistakenly assume that what they say online is private.

It wasn’t until early last year that the New York City Department of Education issued social media policies for employees. Besides prohibiting teachers from using social media with students outside of school hours, New York’s policy warns that employees “have no expectation of privacy” when they use social media for school-related purposes.

Teachers are allowed to maintain contact with students through official school-based social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, as long as they get approval from their supervisors, according to the New York City DOE policy. However, principals and other DOE supervisors also will be checking teachers’ school-based sites for improprieties.

Dealing with gray areas

Districts with social media policies unanimously prohibit the online sharing of student information and data, such as test scores, as well as information on other district personnel. It’s also common practice to require employees to have separate email and Facebook accounts for professional and personal use.

What differs among these policies is the extent to which teachers are barred from maintaining contact with students via social media—and the extent to which districts will go to police violations.

There are few concrete rules in Los Angeles USD’s new “Social Media Policy for Employees and Associated Persons.” When it comes to networking outside of school, for instance, the language in the policy reads, “Accepting invitations to non-school related social networks from…students under the age of 18 is strongly discouraged, and on a case-by-case basis, may be prohibited by the site administrator.”

Judy Chiasson, LAUSD’s coordinator of human relations, diversity, and equity, was a member of the team that drafted the policy over several months in early 2012. The team’s legal advisors discouraged—but did not ban—employees from using social media with students outside of school, she says. Chiasson also notes that monitoring employee Facebook postings and other online communications is unrealistic.

“I don’t want to make a policy I can’t enforce,” she says. “There’s no way that a large school district can go out and randomly check Facebook pages of employees and what the friends of those Facebook users have posted.”

So far, the only violations that have occurred were when several teachers bashed colleagues and principals in public forums, such as on Facebook, Chiasson says. She dealt with the problems by mediating between the parties involved.

To friend, or not

Decker says that it’s not a good idea to prohibit friending students because, in part, such a policy risks interfering with teachers’ personal rights. “It’s also not good policy from a leadership standpoint,” she argues. “It’s condescending to teachers to tell them not to friend because they might be sexual predators.”

Minnetonka (Minn.) Public Schools Superintendent Dennis Peterson says his district’s teachers are responsible enough to maintain online contact with students and parents outside of school. Minnetonka’s 6-year-old employee social media policy—one of the first in the country—does not restrict such contact. “First of all, we realized they have personal rights that we can’t control and that they are reasonable people,” Peterson says. “If you give them good guidelines and answer their questions, we think that works better than trying to police them.”

Minnetonka’s policy focuses on prevention rather than punishment and contains a dozen guidelines, Peterson says. One guideline urges, “Respect your audience and your co-workers.” Another states, “Be a positive role model,” and stresses appropriate behavior with students. Under the “Keep your cool” guideline, employees are counseled regarding differences of opinion.

Minnetonka employees must attend an annual workshop that highlights appropriate and inappropriate social media conduct. Misconduct might include sharing pictures of students without parental consent, and referring to student test scores and grades.

“There have been a lot of presentations going into examples of employees in other districts,” Peterson explains, “who have gotten into trouble by ‘innocently’ moving into areas that they shouldn’t have.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer to District Administration.