Teachers weigh the risks, benefits of communicating with students online

As school administrators work to reconcile their conductpolices with expanding technology, teachers have started to think twice beforeposting that rant to their blog or picture to their Facebook profile. Yet, whenit comes to their First Amendment right to freedom of speech, should they haveto think twice?

In one case that received national attention, NatalieMunroe, a teacher at Central Bucks East High School in Pennsylvania, wassuspended in February after an online rant about students and parents on herpersonal blog was discovered. She wrote certain unnamed students were “lazywhiners,” “rude” and “jerk offs.”

The Pennsylvania dispute is among many across the countrycausing school officials to rethink and rework their policies on how teachersinteract with their students.

Andrew Ford, president of the Florida Education Association,which represents teachers in the state, said social media are evolving morequickly than laws and rules.

“I think teachers need to be cautious,” he said. “Thingsthat adults take for granted should not necessarily be posted where studentscan see. [We’re] trying to make sure that we get teachers to understand thatjust because it is private on their own time doesn’t mean that it’s completelyprivate.”

Figuring out which policies work

The Manatee Education Association filed a lawsuit inNovember after Manatee County School District officials in Southeast Floridaapproved a policy that would restrict how teachers can communicate withstudents outside of school.

According to the policy, “communication with students viaany communication tools that are not approved by the District … requireswritten notification to the students’ parents via the District’s approved format least ten days in advance.”

Additionally, the policy would restrict what employees canpersonally post about the school district.

“Employees are to refrain from electronically posting inpublicly accessible websites any statements, documents, or photographs thatmight cast the employee, the students, or the District in a negative,scandalous, or embarrassing light,” according to the policy.

The teachers union agreed to drop their legal objections tothe policy and will work with the district to revise it.

John Bowen, attorney for the district, said all parties haveagreed to work together to resolve concerns.

“They were thinking it was some First Amendment problem andwe’re going to work on that,” he said. “We’re not trying to say you can’tcommunicate, but we’re saying when you do, make sure you comply with the codeof ethics and principles of the teaching profession.”

Bowen said the ultimate goal is to give employees explicitguidelines on how to use electronic resources when communicating with studentsbecause that “communication is subject to the same rules as in the classroom.”

“It doesn’t matter where they’re communicating on their homecomputer, using a social network, or at the beach or in the mall, or in theclassroom, they’re bound by those same rules,” he said.

If concerned teachers want to turn to their local or stateeducation association for rules about how to use the Web to communicate withstudents, they likely won’t find them. Most organizations give few guidelines,while the federal Department of Education website offers no directives onsocial media policy for teachers, other than to tout the ability of students tolearn through social media and technology.

“We have suggested that the teacher does not interact [witha student] as a friend on social networking,” Ford said when asked what theFlorida Education Association recommends. “Even though you may be home, sittingin your living room on a computer, that it is still at work if you’recommunicating with students.”

Some state boards of education trying to address the issuehave found that crafting an acceptable policy is easier said than done.

The Virginia Board of Education was forced to back away froma model policy proposed last fall, which would have banned texting and allsocial media interaction between students and teachers. The policy was designedto prevent sexual misconduct, but drew the ire of groups including the StudentPress Law Center because of its potential impact on student journalists andadvisers.

The policy that was adopted in March does not include therestrictions, but instead calls for transparency and the development of local“best practices.”

Andrea Kayne Kaufman, associate professor of educationalleadership at DePaul University, teaches masters and doctoral students — almostall of them teachers — who are working to become principals andsuperintendents. She said administrators in many schools are playing catch-upwith social media.

“Social media policies are sort of handled on ateacher-by-teacher basis, which can cause a lot of problems,” Kaufman said,“because you can have teachers who have really great intentions when‘friending’ their students, but they don’t have the proper screen, like onFacebook, so students see them drunk at a bachelor party.”

Kaufman said other issues arise when “students who don’tlike a teacher post to their friends and on Facebook things about the teacher,or students create false Facebook accounts.” With bullying in the spotlight atmany schools across the country, she expects these concerns to become part ofthe policies administrators create.

“I think the principals that are the most proactive, orsometimes reactive, are the ones who’ve created policies such as, ‘You can’tfriend a student unless the student has graduated from the school,’ or ‘If youuse Twitter there needs to be a password.’”

Another professor at DePaul University, Paul Booth, recentlytaught a lesson on social media and privacy to a class of freshmen.

“I asked, ‘How many of you in your high school had someonesuspended or disciplined because of something that happened on Facebook, orsomething that happened over a text message, or sexting, or something likethat?’” he said. “Half the class raised their hands and they kind of shockedme. I wasn’t expecting that.”

Booth, an assistant professor of new media and technology,said he expects high schools will focus on literacy in the future as they cometo terms with technology. Too often, he said, schools focus on what studentsshould avoid instead of showing students positive ways to use technology.

Higher education and socialmedia

While DePaul is one of a few universities to take the leadwith a social media policy, typically referred to as “best-practiceguidelines,” Booth said there aren’t strict rules about how professors shoulduse social media on or off campus.

“There aren’t universal rules for professors in the way theyuse social media,” he said. “There are general guidelines we are given when weget a job … It’s usually left up to the professor.”

Booth said his own personal policy is not to ‘friend’undergraduate students on Facebook.

“I’m upfront about it because I teach social media … becausethat’s not the relationship that we have. Once you graduate, then we can bepeers,” he said. “Then you have a degree and we no longer have astudent-professor relationship. But that’s just my own personal policy and Iknow some professors ‘friend’ undergrads and some professors absolutely don’tuse Facebook at all.”

Universities are also beginning to incorporate social mediainto their marketing and communications practices. At Seattle University, DJWeidner is the school’s social media coordinator. His job involves managing allsocial media communications for the university, communicating the universitybrand online, and watching for mentions of the university on social media. Healso helps faculty and staff learn better ways to use the tools.

Weidner’s department launched Seattle University’s socialmedia presence in February 2009 and quickly found an audience who wanted tocommunicate with them in that way. They also wanted to make sure everyoneunderstood what the expectations were, Weidner said.

“Our guidelines apply to faculty and staff in their use asofficial representatives of the institution,” he said. “As far as taking socialmedia into the classroom, that’s really the role of our provost and ouracademics and they have looked at the policy we’ve created for assistance, buthaven’t necessarily formalized that into the classroom yet.”

Weidner said that research suggests universities “are moresuccessful when they have a social media policy in place when communicatingtheir messages online.”

“In the future, I believe the social media coordinator rolewill become the role of more people in the office, and not just the role of asingle person,” he said, “but rather part of media relations in general.”

What does the future hold?

Kyu Ho Youm, the Jonathan Marshall First Amendment Chair atthe University of Oregon, said landmark cases such as Tinkerv. Des Moines and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier arenormally what K-12 school officials look to for perspective on First Amendmentprotections when developing social media policies.

“The First Amendment protection of free speech should begiven careful consideration by the school authorities,” he said. “Some schoolsare more restrictive and that’s creating problems, and also some schoolpolicies tend to be rather overbroad and also, at the same time, they’revague.”

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Garcettiv. Ceballos that when a public employee speaks “pursuant to hisofficial duties,” the First Amendment doesn’t protect against discipline. TheCourt hasn’t ruled whether that same logic applies specifically to public highschool teachers or public university professors.

Youm said free speech law has yet to catch up to thetechnology outpacing it. He said law in the U.S. tends to be “more reactiverather than proactive.”

“The Supreme Court will sooner or later define the FirstAmendment status of social media,” he said, “but the fundamental question is,‘How?’”

Booth, the new media professor at DePaul, expects broaderguidelines, especially as administrators catch up and discover that “what’sspecific one year is outdated the next.”

“Social media is constantly changing,” he said. “If someonehad said in 2005 the world was going to go crazy because they can writemessages in 140 characters, I would’ve said you’re crazy. Now Twitter is allthe rage, text messaging is all the rage. Who knows what it’s going to be in 2014?”

By Aly Brumback, SPLC staff writer