Addressing teacher use of social media — on and off the clock

Teachers, do you know what to do if a student or parent sends you a Facebook “friend” request?

If you answered, “accept it,” then you should keep reading after the jump.

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Why can’t we be friends?

Constance Lindner of The Boston Globe reports that a substitute teacher has been fired for becoming Facebook “friends” with some students at the high school at which he taught:

An Abington High School substitute teacher and boys’ tennis coach has been fired following what school officials deemed his “inappropriate communication” with students on Facebook.

Jon O’Keefe, a 31-year-old Waltham resident hired early this year to replace a teacher on maternity leave, was dismissed last week and ordered off school property while school officials, aided by police, investigate the matter, said Abington Schools Superintendent Peter Schafer.

“We have an ethics policy about appropriate boundaries and behavior, and certainly ‘friending’ students on a social network is not an appropriate boundary to cross,” Schafer said this week. He declined to reveal the nature of the allegedly inappropriate communication between O’Keefe and the students.

O’Keefe could not be reached for comment.

No criminal charges have been filed in the case, said Bridget Norton Middleton, a spokeswoman for Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruz. Abington police Deputy Chief Christopher Cutter said his department was still investigating as of early this week.

How can schools avoid similar social media issues?

I have drafted many social media policies for clients, large and small. These policies vary in length and substance, but generally consist of both rules (you can’t do this) and guidelines (you may want to consider doing this). When I draft these policies for schools, there is one immutable rule:

Absent written permission form the school, employees may not friend
or otherwise communicate via social media with: (a) prospective students,
(b) current students, (c) former student, or (d) parents of current students.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association agrees with me:

When accepting “friend requests” or adding individuals to your friend list, keep in mind that these individuals will have access to most information you post. Be sure not to accept a friend request from anyone you do not know. Do not accept friend requests from your students or their parents. If a student or parent of a student messages you through a social media site, do not respond.

Why have the restriction on social-media contact with parents and students?

First, is there any reason that a teacher needs to communicate with students or parents via social media (other than through a school-sponsored Facebook class page), when in-person, phone, or email will suffice? I can’t think of any.

Second, the school has less, if any, control over the substance of communications over social media (versus, let’s say, school e-mail). The tone of social-media communications tends to be more causal and likely inconsistent with the typical teacher-student relationship.

Third, when a teacher “friends” a student on Facebook, the teacher generally has access to everything posted on the student’s Facebook page and, potentially, the Facebook pages of the student’s Facebook “friends,” which may include other current students. (When a teacher “friends” a parent and that parent is Facebook “friends” with a current student, then the teacher may have access to the student’s Facebook page). That teacher may subsequently become aware, vis-a-vis the student’s Facebook page, of a matter that the teacher should report to the school. If that teacher fails to report the matter to the school, the school may face liability.

Fourth, when a teacher “friends” a student or parent on Facebook, then the student/parent will generally have access to the content on the teacher’s Facebook page, some of which may contain unprofessional content or (gasp) criticism of the school.

It is, therefore, imperative that schools take a proactive approach to employee use of social media.

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