New York City Department of Education issues guidelines limiting teacher-student contact via social media
The New York Times reports that according to guidelines just released by the New York City Department of Education (NYCDE) governing employees’ use of social media, teachers may not contact students through personal pages on websites like Facebook and Twitter, but can communicate via pages set up for classroom use. The guidelines do not ban teachers from using social media, and recognize that it can offer tremendous educational benefits, but they do not address cellphones and text messaging between teachers and students.
However, the guidelines do reflect growing concerns nationwide about the instantaneous ease with which teachers can interact electronically with students, and the potential for misuse or abuse. The guidelines represent the latest official response to a number of episodes involving teachers accused of behaving inappropriately with students. At least seven school employees have been arrested in the past few months in relation to sexual offenses involving students.
In general, the guidelines say that teachers should maintain separate professional and personal webpages. They may not e-mail, “friend,” or otherwise communicate with students via the teachers’ or students’ personal pages. Teachers also should use privacy settings “to control access to their personal social media sites.”
Teachers may communicate with students via professional pages devoted to classroom business like homework and study guides, but must get a supervisor’s approval before setting up such pages. Also, parents must sign a consent form before their children can participate on those pages.
Additionally, teachers should “have no expectation of privacy” when using social media, because principals and other officials will be on the lookout for any “questionable” behavior. “If a particular type of behavior is inappropriate in the classroom or a professional workplace, then that behavior is also inappropriate on the professional social media site,” the guidelines state.
Unions representing school employees have given the guidelines a negative reception. Chiara Colletti, a spokeswoman for the principals’ union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said the guidelines appeared to be “overbroad.” “We are concerned that our principals will be expected to bear the burden of monitoring social media activities that are, in fact, almost impossible to monitor,” she said. Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, said that he was “taken aback” by the tone of the guidelines, which he worried would discourage teachers from using social media tools.
In comparison with some other school districts, NYCDE is taking a more measured approach to electronic communications. For example, last month the Board of Education in Paramus, N.J., approved restrictions on employee use of social networks and cellphones, including a prohibition against naming students as “friends” on social media and giving out cellphone numbers to students without permission from supervisors.
Even then, teachers cannot call students under the age of 18 on their cellphones without the authorization of a parent. “All e-contacts with students should be through the district’s computer account or e-mail and telephone system,” the Paramus policy states.
On the other hand, NYCDE sought to avoid prohibiting all forms of direct electronic contact, noting it could still discipline teachers who used cellphones inappropriately. “The last thing we want to do is prohibit communication and prevent a teacher from helping a student in distress, even if that means making a phone call,” said NYCDE spokesman Matthew Mittenthal.
Source: The New York Times, 5/1/12, By David W. Chen and Patrick McGeehan
[Editor's Note: In March 2012, Legal Clips summarized an article in The Capital, reporting that Anne Arundel County school officials, like their counterparts elsewhere in Maryland, are struggling to draft rules governing how to use social media and to avoid its pitfalls. The schools are currently working on guidelines, but must also be careful about the First Amendment implications, said school system spokesman Bob Mosier. “How do you legislate common sense? It’s difficult for any organization, especially one as large as our school system,” Mosier said. County schools launched their own Facebook page to make community announcements last year. But most social media websites are officially blocked on any computer using school servers. And there is no official policy regarding social media use for teachers or students. School administrators said there has been no formal education on interacting online, but that teachers are likely to use teachable moments to discuss the dangers of social media.]