Teachers weigh the risks, benefits of communicating with students online

As school administrators work to reconcile their conduct polices with expanding technology, teachers have started to think twice before posting that rant to their blog or picture to their Facebook profile. Yet, when it comes to their First Amendment right to freedom of speech, should they have to think twice?

In one case that received national attention, Natalie Munroe, a teacher at Central Bucks East High School in Pennsylvania, was suspended in February after an online rant about students and parents on her personal blog was discovered. She wrote certain unnamed students were “lazy whiners,” “rude” and “jerk offs.”

The Pennsylvania dispute is among many across the country causing school officials to rethink and rework their policies on how teachers interact with their students.

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

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

Figuring out which policies work

The Manatee Education Association filed a lawsuit in November after Manatee County School District officials in Southeast Florida approved a policy that would restrict how teachers can communicate with students outside of school.

According to the policy, “communication with students via any communication tools that are not approved by the District ... requires written notification to the students’ parents via the District’s approved form at least ten days in advance.”

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

“Employees are to refrain from electronically posting in publicly accessible websites any statements, documents, or photographs that might 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 to the policy and will work with the district to revise it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Virginia Board of Education was forced to back away from a model policy proposed last fall, which would have banned texting and all social media interaction between students and teachers. The policy was designed to prevent sexual misconduct, but drew the ire of groups including the Student Press Law Center because of its potential impact on student journalists and advisers.

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

Andrea Kayne Kaufman, associate professor of educational leadership at DePaul University, teaches masters and doctoral students — almost all of them teachers — who are working to become principals and superintendents. She said administrators in many schools are playing catch-up with social media.

“Social media policies are sort of handled on a teacher-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 on Facebook, so students see them drunk at a bachelor party.”

Kaufman said other issues arise when “students who don’t like a teacher post to their friends and on Facebook things about the teacher, or students create false Facebook accounts.” With bullying in the spotlight at many schools across the country, she expects these concerns to become part of the policies administrators create.

“I think the principals that are the most proactive, or sometimes reactive, are the ones who’ve created policies such as, ‘You can’t friend a student unless the student has graduated from the school,’ or ‘If you use Twitter there needs to be a password.’”

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

“I asked, ‘How many of you in your high school had someone suspended or disciplined because of something that happened on Facebook, or something that happened over a text message, or sexting, or something like that?’” he said. “Half the class raised their hands and they kind of shocked me. 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 come to terms with technology. Too often, he said, schools focus on what students should avoid instead of showing students positive ways to use technology.

Higher education and social media

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

“There aren’t universal rules for professors in the way they use social media,” he said. “There are general guidelines we are given when we get 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 ... because that’s not the relationship that we have. Once you graduate, then we can be peers,” he said. “Then you have a degree and we no longer have a student-professor relationship. But that’s just my own personal policy and I know some professors ‘friend’ undergrads and some professors absolutely don’t use Facebook at all.”

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

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

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

Weidner said that research suggests universities “are more successful when they have a social media policy in place when communicating their messages online.”

“In the future, I believe the social media coordinator role will become the role of more people in the office, and not just the role of a single 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 at the University of Oregon, said landmark cases such as Tinker v. Des Moines and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier are normally what K-12 school officials look to for perspective on First Amendment protections when developing social media policies.

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

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Garcetti v. Ceballos that when a public employee speaks “pursuant to his official duties,” the First Amendment doesn’t protect against discipline. The Court hasn’t ruled whether that same logic applies specifically to public high school teachers or public university professors.

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

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

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

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

By Aly Brumback, SPLC staff writer

reports, Spring 2011