Virginia’s State Board of Education is scheduled to vote Jan. 13 on a set of guidelines restricting out-of-class interactions between school personnel and students, and while well-intended, the regulations could significantly hamper the way students gather and distribute news.
The complete set of proposals is viewable here. Their stated intent is to deter school employees from pursuing inappropriate personal relationships with students.
Some of the recommendations are innocuous, common-sense standards that are already widely understood, such as no sharing of pornographic material with students. But others sweep so broadly that — if enacted as proposed — they could interfere unnecessarily with the student/teacher relationship, and particularly with the operations of student media:
- No text messaging between students and teachers. Sponsors of publications know — even if Department of Education officials do not — that newspaper and yearbook production don’t obey 8-to-3 school hours. It’s not unusual for advisers to text-message students to, for instance, make sure that a photographer is covering the Friday night football game or the Saturday night dance. And, to a 14-year-old, text messaging is communicating. If text-messaging is categorically banned, advisers lose the most effective way of keeping tabs on publication staffs outside of class hours. (Obviously, no one at the Virginia Department of Education has ever been responsible for chaperoning 20 cellphone-addicted teenagers on an out-of-state field trip to a journalism convention.)
- No communicating with students using non-school “platforms.” This means teachers may not exchange messages with students on Facebook or Twitter. Many outstanding student publications — like this one, this one and this one — maintain active Facebook sites to recruit staff members, solicit submissions, update readers on breaking news, and otherwise take advantage of the immediacy of social media. And a growing number of journalism educators use Twitter both as part of the news-writing curriculum and as a device for broadcasting messages to an entire student media staff at once.
- No school board employee may conduct an “ongoing series” of meetings with a student (whatever “ongoing series” means) without notifying the principal and obtaining written parental consent. If applied literally, this would destroy the ability of student journalists to cover school board meetings or cultivate district-level sources. (Considering that many seniors are 18 years old — old enough to vote in school board elections or, in some jurisdictions, even to run for school board — this policy would likely be declared unconstitutionally over-board in any event.)
It is not unusual for student journalists to use confidential school sources to break significant news stories that the professional media can’t or won’t. The recommendation that student-employee communications be “transparent” and “accessible to supervisors” has the makings of a “no-whistleblowing” rule. If it becomes forbidden for school employees to communicate confidentially with students — other than using easily-traced school e-mail accounts and school phones — investigative student journalism will be greatly impeded.
Everyone agrees that sexual predation of students is intolerable, and the problem may justify sensible additional precautions (though it is difficult to see how the threat of school disciplinary action will meaningfully deter someone who is undeterred by the risk of jail time for statutory rape). But emotionally charged issues frequently provoke panicky — and constitutionally indefensible — responses, and the severity of the child sexual abuse problem does not legitimize every throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-it remedy.
While the guidelines would still have to be enacted at the district level to carry binding force, school attorneys understandably will advise local boards to track the state-level standards as closely as possible. Because local boards may feel duty-bound to parrot the state guidelines, the state board presents the best opportunity for meaningful input.
Regrettably, the 30-day public comment period for the guidelines was timed to coincide with Thanksgiving, final exams and the winter holiday break. Few in the student media had a chance to become aware of, publicize, and comment on the proposal.
Those who still want to be heard can forward comments to Dr. Margaret W. Roberts with the DOE Office of Communications at Margaret.Roberts@doe.virginia.gov, or by fax to 804-225-2524. It might also help to ask members of the Board of Education directly to delay a vote pending a genuine comment period and consideration of all consequences — intended and unintended — of these drastic proposals. Their contact information is available here.