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Districts Struggle with Social Networking Guidelines

A couple questionable events have sent lawmakers and educators scurrying to sort out what should be allowed for communications that take place between school personnel and students through social networking sites.

In New York City, teachers and other district staff can no longer use personal pages on social media sites to communicate with students in a new Department of Education policy set at the end of April 2012. The only exceptions to the rule are to communicate with relatives or when an emergency situation requires it, in which case, the policy stated, the "employee should notify his/her supervisor of the contact as soon as possible."

The same guidelines also remind district staff to "exercise caution and common sense when using personal social media sites." They're encouraged, for example, to use appropriate privacy settings to control access to their sites, while also being aware that "limitations" to privacy settings "can easily become public." They're banned from posting personal student information or even using the district logo; nor should they "tag" photos of other employees, volunteers or others doing district work without the individual's permission. The policy specifically references Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, and Flickr, although it adds that the rules aren't limited to these.

The new guidelines come on the heels of a number of arrests of school employees--at least seven, according to The New York Times--involved in "sexual offenses involving students." The Wall Street Journal reported that the district said the timing of the new social media policy was "unrelated" to the arrests and that the guidelines had been in development for several months.

The reason for the guidance, the policy stated, was "to provide recommended practices for employees to take advantage of this technology in a manner that encourages professionalism, responsibility, safety and awareness." In addition, it added, the guidelines "provide recommended best practices for employees who use social media for personal communications."

In Clayton, MO, a suburb of St. Louis, a high school principal has been ousted--either voluntarily or reluctantly--after a former student accused her or setting up a fake Facebook account, possibly in order to monitor student and parent activities. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Principal Louise Losos was the person behind a Facebook page set up by "Suzy Harriston," who claimed to be from Clayton and had about 300 friends, many from the high school.

When a former football star posted a notice on Suzy's page that the account actually belonged to the principal, the page disappeared. A leave of absence was announced for the principal just days afterwards, and Losos' resignation followed four weeks later.

Although the district isn't sharing details, citing confidentiality regarding personnel matters, some observers implied the potentially fake Facebook page was set up in response to a popular football coach's firing. Sam Horrell was fired in 2011 for being in contact with middle school athletes, a violation of state athletic association regulations. Students who disagreed with the firing set up a Facebook page to support the coach, and used it to rail against the principal and the district's athletic director.

Horrell was kept on at the school as a PE teacher, but then was voted out at a school board meeting in early April. As a Horrell supporter posted to the "Bring Back Coach Horrell" Facebook page, "Former Head Football Coach, longtime PE teacher and Lifelong Greyhound Sam Horrell has had his contract NOT RENEWED for the 2012-13 school year. One year short of tenure!!! We love you Coach!!!... This is a tragedy. You will be missed but never forgotten."

The next day a number of Horrell supporters received friend requests from Suzy. And it was then that the former football player accused Losos of using the allegedly pseudonymous Facebook profile, and her position as principal unraveled. Losos, who has been a principal since 2005, will be paid through June 2012.

Although the school's "guiding principles" reference nothing about staff use of social networking sites specifically, one parent quoted in news coverage called the Suzy Harriston situation "a breach of trust."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.