News Column

Social Media and Schools

Feb. 27, 2012

Jeff Schmucker

Hands texting on a smartphone

While school district officials have wrestled with the issue of whether to set boundaries for teachers and coaches when texting and communicating with students using social media, high school students may have come up with an answer.

Tori Selby, the student school board representative, proposed during Tuesday's school board meeting to continue allowing educators to communicate with students via cell phone and online, but with conditions.

They would first have to receive parents' permission to use their child's cell phone or social media page as a means to communicate. Secondly, Selby said coaches and teachers could then only send out mass messages to all team or class members -- not individual students.

"Chances are, what a coach says to a group of students is different than how they would talk to one student," Selby said. "But one of the things is, cell phones should really only be used as a last resort -- they should probably use the school announcements more. But then again, that's difficult when you have some groups that don't meet until 5 p.m. or later."

School districts across the state are grappling with the issue of placing social media restrictions on teachers.

For example, Highlands County officials earlier this month were contemplating a rule that would prohibit teachers from "friending" students on the social media network Facebook.

Two years ago, school board members expressed interest in a policy addressing electronic communication following an investigation of Ryan Wilson, a physical science and career development teacher at Nature Coast Technical School, who was texting a teenage girl.

He was cleared of any wrongdoing with the student, but Wilson also was reprimanded for not reporting earlier to administrators that he was receiving inappropriate texts from the girl. As punishment, he also was removed from coaching girls' sports.

But Superintendent Bryan Blavatt has said the challenge is creating a policy that wouldn't trump their individual rights.

Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, argued that any policy restricting educators from communicating with students would likely do just that.

He said current rules and guidelines already address how teachers are supposed to interact with students, adding that the district has punished teachers and coaches who inappropriately communicated with students outside of the classroom.

Emily Gustafson, a Springstead High School senior and member of Blavatt's student advisory council, said middle and high school students struggled with the same arguments.

Middle schoolers on the council believed that teachers and coaches should have no interaction with students via text messages or online, while high schoolers found that text messaging especially was one of the most effective ways to spread word about important matters, such as practice times and other changes.

"Overall, it was really tricky coming up with a rule on this because there is always that exception," Gustafson said.

But both Blavatt and board member John Sweeney supported the council's idea.

Blavatt said a recommendation could also be presented to the school board by April.

"I listen to (the advisory council) and they do a great job," Blavatt said. "And certainly anything that might work for the betterment of the student, I'm going to bring to the board and let them decide."

Source: (c) 2012 the Hernando Today (Brooksville, Fla.)

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