The New York Department of Education has a seven-page set of social media guidelines that instructs teachers to use “school-based” social media platforms to communicate with students and recommends against employees using personal social media sites to contact students.
In Missouri, the legislature passed a law several years ago banning all electronic communication between educators and students, but after a legal challenge by the state teachers union, a judge ruled the law unconstitutional. The legislation has been rewritten to direct each district to create its own policy, making it remain unclear if a district ban would be considered unconstitutional, Ms. Shipley said.
“Everyone is trying to figure out what to do between what the courts are deciding and given the challenges of the increasing number of sexual abuse by educator cases,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.
The issue is relevant in districts across Pennsylvania. In Plum, where two teachers were arrested in February and charged with institutional sexual assault for their relationships with female students, superintendent Timothy Glasspool said his board is not considering a policy banning social media or cell phone contact between teachers and students because “it may violate the First Amendment rights of individuals.”
In addition to the Plum arrests, recent weeks have seen the Norwin School District announce the suspension of a teacher without pay for sending inappropriate text messages to a student. A Sto-Rox middle school teacher’s aide was arrested over an alleged sexual relationship with a 13-year-old female student and a former Ringgold High School guidance counselor faces criminal charges for what police said was a sexual relationship with a male student who was a high school football player.
Despite the free speech issue, Shipley’s advice to clients is that it is unwise for adult educators to accept students as friends on Facebook or to communicate personal messages with students via social media or texting.
That’s the same recommendation the Pennsylvania State Education Association gives to its members.
“Do not accept friend requests from your students or their parents. If a student or parent of a student messages you through a social media site, do not respond,” the PSEA wrote in its Safe Social Media for Educators guidelines.
A policy developed by the Mt. Lebanon School District requires that staff members use social media tools created and monitored by the district to communicate with students. It specifies social media should be used only “to support the educational mission of the district with regard to teaching and learning.”
It also states: “Staff members may not communicate with students using external social networking group pages unless that communication is within the public view.”