More than three years after social-networking web sites such as MySpace and Facebook first began cropping up online, school leaders still struggle with how to set policies regarding the use of such sites both inside and outside of school–and many school systems lack these policies altogether, according to a recent survey.

Only 35 percent of the educators, administrators, and school board members who registered for the National School Boards Association’s annual Technology + Learning (T+L) Conference and responded to an eMail survey given before the event was held in Dallas Nov. 8-10 said their districts had policies to address the use of social-networking sites by their students. Fifty percent of respondents said their districts had no such policies, and 15 percent weren’t sure.

The survey’s findings suggest a degree of confusion on the topic that was reflected in forums held during the T+L Conference itself and in a separate webcast hosted by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), also in November.

Among respondents who said their districts have a policy that covers social-networking web sites, the most common approach seems to be the use of a firewall or filtering software to block students’ access to these sites while at school.

When asked what their policy says, about half of respondents to the NSBA survey indicated their policy is simply to filter such sites, while some educators also said they require students to sign an acceptable-use policy making it clear that unauthorized use of these sites during school hours is prohibited.

“Students at our school and their parents sign a form stating they will not attempt to use MySpace or other [such] web sites without permission and supervision of the teacher,” wrote one respondent. Said another, “Acceptable-use policies have been put in place that define what is acceptable in an educational setting and the consequences of abuse. There are some sites that have been physically blocked. These policies undergo scrutiny on a regular basis and are updated as deemed necessary, as technology advances.”

Interestingly, very few of the responses included teaching students about responsible use of online social networks–a point that Anne Bryant, NSBA’s executive director, noted. “It is important to keep in mind that just blocking access to social web sites at school is not the end of the story,” said Bryant in a statement. “Most of the misuse of these sites takes place at home, but still affects the classroom. We have to teach our students about the safe and proper use of social web sites.”

Thirty-six percent of those polled by NSBA said students’ use of MySpace and similar sites has been “disruptive” to their school district’s learning environment. Of these educators, about two-thirds said the posting of inappropriate content or personally identifiable information posed a problem; about 40 percent said cyber-bullying or “causing too much time off task” were problems; and one in four said the creation of false pages for administrators or teachers has been a problem.

A ‘MySpace world’

The need to teach students about the proper use of such sites was a point of emphasis in CoSN’s Nov. 15 webcast, titled “Keeping Students Secure in a MySpace World.”

Whether the challenge is avoiding cyber bullies or potential online predators, educators have every right to be skeptical of the increasing popularity of social-networking web sites on campus, participants in the webcast agreed. Still, despite its obvious pitfalls, online social networking holds great potential as a learning exercise, many acknowledged.

Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas, said social-networking web sites can help connect students in the United States to their peers in other countries, providing invaluable lessons in foreign cultures.

But it’s up to schools to “mitigate the risks as much as possible,” said Harold Rowe, associate superintendent for technology at the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Texas.

One way to do that, said Rowe, is to inform students of the dangers these sites pose–and outline tactics to avoid being victimized by online predators.

Though raising student awareness is essential to keeping kids safe online, webcast speakers said, it’s not the only step schools should take.

Educators also must practice effective classroom management and oversight, while administrators should explore the use of recording and monitoring technologies intended to determine where students are on the web–and where they’re trying to go.

Schools can contact MySpace and other sites to request that potentially harmful information posted by students be removed, but contacting online service providers to request these changes takes time, Rowe said. Rather than merely reacting in such situations, he said, schools should be teaching responsible use of these sites up front. Ron Teixeira, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance, recommended that educators visit his organization’s web site to download free resources, activities, and lesson plans for teaching online safety in schools. Eventually, he said, cyber security needs to become second nature for students, “just like looking both ways before crossing the street or never talking to strangers.”

Postings, protection–and policies

Though education clearly is important, how should school board policies adequately address their students’ use of social-networking technologies? And what are school leaders’ rights and limitations when it comes to enforcing such policies if students misuse these sites?

In an online discussion hosted by NSBA during its T+L Conference, legal expert Kimberly Jessie, an associate at the law firm Bracewell Giuliani, sought to answer these questions.

Unless there is a “substantial disruption to the educational environment,” school leaders are limited in their ability to take any action if students post offensive or inappropriate material outside of school, Jessie said.

However, when asked how school leaders can work with parents to address the bullying and ostracizing comments that often take place in these online environments, “when many of them do not view it as problem,” Jessie recommended letting parents know that although schools are limited in their ability to discipline such behavior, teachers have been successful in filing individual lawsuits against students and their parents.

“One teacher recently won a $500,000 lawsuit for defamation because of this issue,” she wrote.

Make sure your acceptable-use policies limit computer access to educational purposes only and prohibit access for personal uses, Jessie noted, adding: “Policies should inform students [and their parents] that disciplinary action may be taken against them when their off-campus speech causes a substantial disruption to the education environment or interferes with another student’s rights. … Criminal action may be taken against [students] when their speech constitutes a true threat.”