“Teachers, watch what you post online”: That, in effect, was the message the Ohio Education Association (OEA), the state’s largest teachers union, delivered to Ohio educators in a memo it sent last month.

The memo strongly discouraged teachers from using social-networking web sites such as MySpace and Facebook to create personal profiles or communicate with students.

“OEA advises members not to join [these sites], and for existing users to complete the steps involved in removing their profiles,” the memo said. “While this advice might seem extreme, the dangers of participating in these two sites outweigh the benefits.”

An investigation by the Columbus Dispatch into educator misconduct underscores the reasons for the union’s concern.

The newspaper’s recent probe has revealed questionable or inappropriate content on at least three MySpace profiles belonging to people who say they are Ohio teachers.

One says she’s an “aggressive freak in bed,” another says she has taken drugs and likes to party, and a third describes his mood as “dirty,” the Dispatch reported Nov. 10. The guy with the dirty mood, who claims to be a 35-year-old middle school math teacher in Cleveland, reportedly listed students among his MySpace friends.

The profiles could be the work of malicious pranksters, but the three examples appear legitimate, with all types of personal and professional information, including full resumes, the Dispatch reported.

If those three postings are from teachers, they’re inappropriate, said James Miller, director of the Office of Professional Conduct at the Ohio Department of Education. Even worse, he said, “It does sound like something that could be ‘conduct unbecoming’.”

That’s a broadly defined violation of educator behavior that can result in license revocations, suspensions, and written reprimands.

Teachers need to review what they’re sharing online, Miller warned: “It’s their right to have it up. But I’d make sure it’s appropriate for my students to look at.”

The OEA sent its memo to teachers on Oct. 16, two days after the Dispatch launched its investigation. However, union officials said they had been planning the memo for months.

“The fact that a student can attempt to contact an OEA member who has a profile on these sites lends itself to the possible interpretation of an improper relationship,” the memo told teachers. “Because of the high standards placed on school employees and the risk of job and career loss, the OEA recommends avoiding even the appearance of impropriety.”

The union also worries that students will create “impostor” sites, pose as adults and engage in conversations with teachers, or use online communication to make allegations later against educators.

“[There are a] lot of potential problems of false allegations, false pages, postings that have absolutely nothing to do with the intention of the teachers,” said Rachelle Johnson, the union’s legal services director.

Anything posted on those sites can be used as evidence in disciplinary hearings by districts and the state Education Department, the union warns.

OEA says it drafted the memo without help from the National Education Association (NEA), the national organization of which it is a state affiliate. Attempts to reach the NEA were unsuccessful as of press time.

Links:

Ohio Education Association

Ohio Department of Education

National Education Association