2. A controversial Missouri law puts social media boundaries between teachers, students in the national spotlight.
Should teachers and students be Facebook “friends”? Where should policy makers draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate teacher-student contact in the age of social media?
Seven years after Facebook’s debut, education leaders are still grappling with this thorny issue—and Missouri lawmakers thrust the debate into the national spotlight when they passed a law barring teachers from having any private contact with students online.
The law was proposed after an Associated Press investigation found 87 Missouri teachers had lost their licenses between 2001 and 2005 because of sexual misconduct, some of which involved exchanging explicit online messages with students. And in a June 28 story, we reported how technology has given educators direct access to students 24 hours a day. That, coupled with the casual tone of text or online conversations, can help blur the lines of appropriateness between a student and teacher, law-enforcement officials say.
But many teachers protested Missouri’s new restrictions, saying the law would hurt their ability to keep in touch with students. The law forbade teachers from having “exclusive access” online with current students or former students who are still minors—meaning that any contact on Facebook or other sites had to be done in public rather than through private messages.
“I am not a pervert and don’t wish to be treated as one,” Joplin middle school teacher Alana Maddock wrote in an eMail message to Gov. Jay Nixon in June, not long before he signed the legislation. “I am very responsible with my Facebook pages and don’t appreciate being assumed to be a danger to my students.”
The state’s teachers union sued to keep the law from taking effect, and a judge issued a temporary injunction in August, saying the law “would have a chilling effect” on free-speech rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.
Facing concerns that the law would hinder the ability of teachers to do their job effectively, state lawmakers repealed parts of the legislation in October. Instead, they passed a new law requiring school districts to develop their own policies on the use of electronic media between employees and students.
But that isn’t the end of the debate. In signing the new bill into law, Nixon noted that schools might find it challenging to develop policies that prevent improper communications without also preventing appropriate ones.
Aimée M. Bissonette, a lawyer at Little Buffalo Law & Consulting in Richfield, Minn., said Missouri’s experience shows there needs to be clear boundaries established for teacher-student electronic communication.
“Teachers need to think about what prompted Missouri’s legislature to pass this law,” she said. “Many of the problems that have resulted from student-teacher interaction on social networking sites could have been avoided if the teachers involved had worked to create clear separation between their personal and school-related roles. … Communication with students doesn’t have to be banned, but there are ‘best practices’ teachers should embrace.”
• Staff members should be encouraged to establish separate sites and pages for personal and professional use, if possible. However, all material on the internet should be presumed to be public—and nothing should be posted if it’s considered truly private.
• Staff members should maintain separate eMail accounts for professional/school and personal communications.
• Staff members using social networking sites, either for school or personal use, should always bear in mind that they represent the school in all interactions at all times. Staff members should avoid any use of such resources in a manner that could reflect negatively on the school.
“If schools have these discussions with teachers and staff, cover these issues in staff development, and draft workable policies, they can prevent a multitude of problems—and avoid legal liability,” Bissonette said. “They also will demonstrate to the legislators of their respective states that they are taking responsibility for the issue of student/teacher electronic communication and [that] legislation is not needed.”