Teachers throughout our nation are paying the price for a minority of teachers who have misused social media with their students, and that price has been the imposition of stricter guidelines that ban private conversations between teachers and students on cell phones and online social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Not surprisingly, these guidelines are being met with resistance by many teachers who use this type of technology as teaching tools or to engage with their students.
Missouri’s new law, which imposed a ban on electronic communication between teachers and students, was declared unconstitutional by a judge after the state teachers union claimed it restricted teachers’ free speech. The law was revamped this fall, and the ban was dropped. However, school boards in the state were told to develop their own social media policies by March 1.
Missouri isn’t alone in trying to develop an appropriate policy. Even though school administrators acknowledge that most teachers use social media appropriately, school boards in California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia have updated or are revising their social media policies this fall because they feel that there are increasingly compelling reasons to limit teacher-student contact.
Charol Shakeshaft, chairwoman of the Department of Educational Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, has studied teacher sexual misconduct for 15 years. Based on her studies, she said of electronic communication, “My concern is that it makes it very easy for teachers to form intimate and boundary-crossing relationships with students. I am all for using this technology. Some school districts have tried to ban it entirely. I am against that. But I think there’s a middle ground that would allow teachers to take advantage of the electronic technology and keep kids safe.”
The superintendent of schools in Statesboro, Georgia, Lewis Holloway, instituted a new policy in the fall which prohibits private electronic communications. Why? He learned that a Bulloch County, Georgia teacher was arrested this past summer, charged with aggravated child molestation and statutory rape of her 14-year-old male student. And reports of the incident indicated that Facebook and text messages had helped her cultivate the relationship.
Holloway, who has been a school administrator for 38 years, said, “It can start out innocent and get more and more in depth quickly. Our students are vulnerable through new means, and we’ve got to find new ways to protect them.”
But it isn’t only sexual misconduct that concerns school administrators; they fear that teachers may reveal too much information on sites like Facebook about their private lives. In Muskegon, Michigan, a new policy was adopted last month which states that public school employees can face disciplinary charges if they post pictures of themselves using alcohol or drugs on their social media sites.
Jon Felske, superintendent of Muskegon’s public schools, explained, “We wanted to have a policy that encourages interaction between our students and parents and teachers. That is how children learn today and interact. But we want to do it with the caveat: keep work work — and keep private your personal life.”
Richard J. Condon, special commissioner of investigation for New York City schools pointed to a steady increase in the number of complaints reported involving inappropriate communications on just Facebook alone in the last few years. Only eight complaints were lodged from September 2008 through October 2009, compared to 85 complaints from October 2010 through September 2011.
Yet, educators worry that an effective way of engaging students who use social media to communicate will be removed if policies regarding the proper use of technology become too restrictive.
Jennifer Pust is the head of the English department at Santa Monica High School, where a strict no fraternization policy governs teachers’ online and offline relationships with their students. She said, “I think the reason why I use social media is the same reason everyone else uses it: it works. I am glad that it is not more restrictive. I understand we need to keep kids safe. I think that we would do more good keeping kids safe by teaching them how to use these tools and navigate this online world rather than locking it down and pretending that it is not in our realm.”
A teacher of English for 10 years at Grosse Point High School in Michigan, Nicholas Provenzano, expressed his frustration that “all of us using social media in a positive way with kids have to take 15 steps back whenever there is an incident.” But, he believes that the benefits outweigh the problems, and he communicates regularly with his students, mostly through Twitter, where he responds to their questions regarding his assignments. He admitted that on some occasions he has exchanged private messages with students regarding an assignment or school-related task.
He enumerated several advantages to using social media with his students. He is able to model best practices on social media use and has been able to engage some students through Twitter who do not raise their hand in class. Additionally, he said that using social media networks allowed him to collaborate on projects in other parts of the country.
Yet, in spite of the positive aspects of social media use in and out of the classroom by teachers, some teachers still favor a sharper barrier. For example, in Dayton, Ohio, the school board imposed a social media policy this fall which limits teachers to public exchanges only on school-run networks, and David A. Romick, president of their teachers union, welcomed the rules, saying, “I see it as protecting teachers. For a relationship to start with friending or texting seems to be heading down the wrong path professionally.”