How should teachers and staff use social media tools to communicate with students?
It’s an open-ended question that Elkhart Community Schools (ECS) is working to close up with a proposed social media policy.
The local school corporation drafted guidelines for monitored use of official school and teacher pages online.
Doug Thorne, executive director of personnel and legal services for ECS said the policy was finally put together to establish boundaries in an internet environment that is ever-expanding.
According to Thorne, the purpose of the proposal is to educate employees about the duality of social media. On the one hand it offers faculty the ability to communicate with friends and families, but on the other hand, employees may use such tools to communicate with students to further the mission of the district.
By opening another avenue of communication there is the risk of blurring the lines between personal voice and institutional voice. That’s why the proposal sets out expectations for classroom use of social media, management of district-approved school-related sites, and procedures for reporting inappropriate use of these tools by ECS staff.
“I think we’re doing a much better job at reaching our community and we recognize social media is where a lot of people are, and they like to get information that way,” said Shawn Hannon, senior director of communication and data for ECS.
Hannon said the policy aims at reminding ECS they are in a fishbowl of sorts and always representing the district. As such representatives they should have explicit guidelines about appropriate online behavior.
Teachers will need parental consent to post student work and photographs online to respect privacy and student intellectual property rights. Administrators say that some form of parental consent would also be required for students and teachers to become Facebook friends.
Employees are also reminded that use of social media, for either personal or professional purposes, is essentially public and represents the entire school corporation to some extent.
Thorne said the board has looked at social media policies implemented in schools across the country. Those policies range from complete bans to full embraces of sites like Facebook and Twitter. ECS’s proposed plan falls somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.
“It’s more of a preventative practice on our part than a response to a particular incident,” Thorne explained.
Thorne said ECS has not encountered a situation where online communication has become inappropriate, but the administration is aware that the fine line of student-teacher communication has been crossed.
In 2011, a Plymouth high school teacher posted pictures of a risqué snow sculpture left in his yard by several former students onto his personal Facebook page. He ended up in the hot seat when school administrators realized that dozens of students were Facebook friends with the teacher and could see those photographs.
More seriously, in 2012 a Knox gym teacher, Robert Corbin, engaged in a two-week long cyber relationship. That relationship began with a Facebook message written by Corbin that told a 16 year old student “Sorry, no students as Facebook friends.” That relationship escalated into a sexual dialogue that ended in Corbin’s arrest.
ECS’s drafted rules were partially a response to similar issues across the country. However, Thorne emphasized that the school board’s primary goal was to foster communication. The corporation is hopeful the policy will only allow principal and administration-sanctioned information to be posted on school-related pages.
“To use it for education, it can be very beneficial, but also recognize that your personal use can reflect poorly on you as a professional,” Thorne added.