Should middle and high school students and their teachers communicate using Facebook, Twitter, email and other social media and internet tools? In an age when nearly everyone, every team, every cause has a Facebook page, does a teacher really want her students to see her in photos from her last vacation in a sunny part of the world?
As teachers are older and in a position of authority of responsibility, it behooves them to use social media appropriately; most school administrators say that most teachers do indeed do. But it only takes one revelation of illicit text messages to highlight the risks of increased contact. In the wake of numerous scandals, school districts across the US are creating strict new regulations:
In Illinois, a 56-year-old former language-arts teacher was found guilty in September on sexual abuse and assault charges involving a 17-year-old female student with whom he had exchanged more than 700 text messages. In Sacramento, a 37-year-old high school band director pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct stemming from his relationship with a 16-year-old female student; her Facebook page had more than 1,200 private messages from him, some about massages. In Pennsylvania, a 39-year-old male high school athletic director pleaded guilty in November to charges of attempted corruption of a minor; he was arrested after offering a former male student gifts in exchange for sex.
It might seem simply common sense not to allow students and teachers to friend each other on Facebook; to follow each other on Twitter. But teachers interviewed in the New York Times note that such social media sites have been good ways to communicate with students and even to encourage quiet students to ask questions they might be afraid to voice in class. Jennifer Pust, head of the English department at Santa Monica High School, indeed points out 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.”
Forbidding student-teacher contact via social media, texting and the like could be in violation of free speech rights. Citing this very reason, the Missouri teachers union successfully argued before a judge that a new law instituting a statewide ban on electronic communication between teachers and students was unconstitutional. School boards are charged with devising their own social media policies by March 1. Across the nation, school boards in California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia have already created such policies or are in the process of making them.
One more point. If students and teachers communicate digitally using Facebook — and sufficient numbers do, such that Facebook offers guidance about doing so – and the like, or can text message each other on cell phones, students and teachers are no longer only interacting within the space and time of school grounds and of the school day. What if a student contacts a teacher at 8:30 pm or later in the evening because she forgot a homework assignment? Is the possibility of 24/7 online contact between students and teachers really in the best interests of both?
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Photo by Christina Welsh (Rin)