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Social networks such as Facebook and MySpace are primarily for socializing. “Socializing” involves interacting for social purposes, and “social purposes” are those marked by friendly companionship with others. It seems, therefore, that school staff should avoid socializing with students in these environments, because educators and students arguably should not be engaged in friendly companionship.

There are some significant concerns with the possibility of students and teachers having this kind of interaction, including the issue that students flirt. If a student were to send a flirtatious message to a staff member that staff member may be in serious trouble. If the teacher responds to the message warmly, he or she faces the accusation of sexual solicitation. If the teacher turns the student down, he or she faces the possibility of revenge.

Another concern is that the staff member participating on a social networking site will become a “guarantor” of all friends, meaning that if a teacher “friends” some students but not others, it could create a perception that those specific students are favored and may receive preferential treatment (such as a better grade than the others). Relatedly, anything performed online by a school employee – including information and images posted on social networking sites – will be used to judge the character of that individual.

There is also the concern that the friends of the staff member may post unflattering information or tag inappropriate images of them which will quickly be used to prompt one major question: “Is this the kind of person we trust to be responsible for our children?”

Ian Defeo, a substitute teacher in Cape May, New Jersey was judged by online content after giving one of his students a sticker with his band’s logo which also had the address to his MySpace page. The student then visited the teacher’s MySpace page which contained his band’s music videos containing explicit lyrics and one video that contained a brief moment where a woman was exposing herself. The school deemed this content inappropriate and therefore fired him, confirming that school employees can be disciplined for off-duty conduct if the school district can show that the conduct may have had an adverse impact on the school. Non-tenured teachers, like Ian, have even fewer protections.

All of this said, we believe school staff should be able to communicate with students regarding class work and school activities through a school-based Web environment and district email system (sometimes also termed a “walled garden” approach). These are school-related communications in which distinctions of status are professional maintained and not socially blurred or distorted. Most communication through school-based means are monitored (for example, all communications are CC’d to an administrator or stored in an accessible database for review and archival) and provide a safer means of interaction between teachers and students. Our hope is that more and more of these approaches will be implemented and, more importantly, gain visibility, traction, and usage among teachers and youth.

The advice here is “policy makers should not enact reactionary legislation regarding contact between teachers and students. What they really need to focus on is training in proper boundaries.”

Overall, the message to school staff members should be:

  • Think before you act/post. Never send or post, or allow others to send or post any material online that will raise questions about your character or values.
  • Another wise practice that seems critical to implement is to always communicate with students in a professional manner, even if you are using privacy protection features on social networking sites (as privacy protections will not necessarily prevent disclosure of the existence and content of these interactions).
  • Always exercise extreme care when communicating online with students and if at all possible, avoid socializing.

This measure, along with district policy that preempts the possibility of inappropriate relationships developing online between staff and students, seems the best way to go.

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