News Column

Schools Eye Social Media Rules

Aug. 13, 2012

Mike LaBella

Social media

In these days of texting and Facebook and Twitter, school officials want to take no chances.

They are drawing up rules regarding social networking -- electronic communication between teachers and students. School Committee members said they want to have the rules in place for the start of the school year, Aug. 28.

School officials said electronic social networking has become a useful tool in connecting teachers with students and parents. But the officials said due to the very nature of electronic communication, there is a risk of blurring the lines between a teacher's professional life and personal life.

School officials say they encourage electronic communication between teachers and students, as well as their parents and guardians, but urge teachers to do so using school-based resources, such as email provided by the school. Officials say it would acceptable to have a Facebook account for communicating with students, parents or others within the school community, as long as it is strictly used for discussing matters directly related to education and is not associated with a teacher's personal Facebook account or email.

With these concerns in mind, the School Department has proposed a new social networking policy intended to define what is acceptable when it comes to electronic communication between teachers and students.

"We have to move quickly to keep up with the latest trends in technology and social networking," said School Committee member Paul Magliocchetti. "This isn't an issue you address once then put it away and not have to touch it again. Technology is moving too fast and we don't know what the next big thing will be. But we'll have to address it when it comes. There will always be some new avenue we'll have to look into."

Superintendent James Scully has been working on the social networking policy for months. He said it is "long overdue."

Scully said the policy is consistent with guidelines provided by the Massachusetts Association of Superindenents and Association of School Committees.

"Both groups combine resources to guide school districts through what I call, 'hot button issues,'" Scully said. "I have found in the past that their gudiance is very accurate, up to date and meaningful. It's not just the typical education verbiage."

Magliocchetti said he expects the committee will vote on the policy at its next meeting Aug. 23 or shortly thereafter. He and committee President Joseph Bevilacqua said they hope it will be in place in time for the start of the new school year.

"When this came forward, there was universal support," said Magliocchetti, who supports the new guidelines.

The proposed social networking policy for staff and students is in response to the proliferation of social networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In that have appeared over the last five years.

"Today, a lot of students communicate with faculty on homework assignments and we don't want to discourage that as it can provide instant feedback for students," Scully said. "However, when you're dealing with over 10,000 people in a school system, it would not be a surprise to see someone deviate from the norm. Just because something didn't happen yesterday doesn't mean something won't happen tomorrow."

One section of the proposed policy states that Should a teacher "friend" a student on Facebook, subscribe to a student's Twitter account, regularly engage in email chatting with a student, exchange text messsages with students or engage in other electronic communication, school officials will be concerned. The policy says such activities may undermine the teacher's authority to maintain discipline, and compromise the educator's ability to remain truly objective with students.

The policy urges teachers to keep the line between their professional life and personal life clearly drawn at all times and reminds teachers that they are also role models for students and not their friends.

Magliocchetti said the district must have a policy in place that sets clear boundaries for both students and faculty.

"Whatever we do, we have to address it in regards to students, faculty and administration," he said. "This is more about what the boundaries are and how people should be using technology and social networking."

In addition to social media websites, the policy applies to other forms of electronic communication.

If a teacher did want to communicate with a student using Facebook, the policy urges the creation of a professional account. Scully said the district is in the process of creating Facebook and Twitter accounts for teachers to use when communicating with students and parents about school issues.

Under the proposed policy, teachers are discouraged from using home telephones, personal cell phones, personal email accounts and personal social networking accounts to communicate with students. But, the policy recognizes that in limited cases, use of a cell phone for calling or texting a student may be necessary, such as in connection with a school-sponsored event for which a teacher serves as an advisor.

"The district anticipates that teachers will make reasonable use of their cell phones or smart phones to convey time sensitive information on scheduling issues and the like," the policy states.

Source: (c)2012 The Eagle-Tribune (North Andover, Mass.). Distributed by MCT Information Services

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