How far should policy makers go in trying to protect kids online?

"If schools have these discussions with teachers and staff, they can prevent a multitude of problems," said one reader.

A new Missouri state law that bans teachers from privately contacting students via social media has become a lightning rod for opinion as schools and their stakeholders grapple with what’s appropriate and what’s not when communicating in the digital era.

Missouri lawmakers say that, in light of disturbing revelations from an Associated Press inquiry that revealed more than 80 teachers in the state were fired for inappropriate sexual conduct with their students, banning private contact with students via social networks such as Facebook is justified. And many parents agree.

But many others, including teachers, say you can’t stop predators by limiting students’ social media interaction—and it doesn’t make sense to punish everyone for the actions of a few.

In response to this story, eSchool News readers from Missouri and across the country provided their own two cents on this polarizing issue.

“As a parent, I appreciate teachers’ concerns for my child’s personal life; however, they are teachers, not a parent or legal guardian of my child, and as such [they] have no business dealing with my child’s personal life directly,” wrote one parent from Denver. “If my child … appears to have some distraction in class that I should know about, I expect that teacher contact me and not direct a response to my child. I expect teachers and the school administration to respect the boundaries of these different roles. There already are effective protocols in place to address emergencies. They do not include social media directly with the student.”

“Communicating through Facebook removes school district control and the monitoring that is obviously necessary,” wrote another concerned parent. “Communicating through Facebook allows for an inappropriate intimacy, even if it is simply the educator being able to read postings that have nothing to do with school business. It is the responsibility of the educator to establish the safe, appropriate mechanism and protocol for communicating with the students. The fact that students use Facebook on a regular basis is irrelevant. The students are quite capable of monitoring their regular eMail and class webpage outside Facebook if that is what is required at school. These days, homework assignments are posted on a class website. There really should not be a reason for communicating through Facebook. As a parent, I would never allow it.”

Arguing the other side was Paul Baker, a Springfield, Mo., educator, who wrote: “Why should all Missouri teachers lose the ability to communicate with their students [owing] to the inappropriate actions of a few? Why not ban the use of cell phones for all educators? It would … cut down on horseplay and unprofessional behavior. Bad bill, vague wording, we all lose.”

Others believe the new law will hurt relationships, not protect them.

“My daughter (age 14, entering 9th grade) came home from cheerleading practice this morning absolutely fuming because [her] coach told them that she would no longer be able to communicate with the girls via text [messaging] because of the new Missouri law. As my daughter said, ‘It’s absurd!’ And as I parent, I totally agree. … Don’t [lawmakers] have more pressing issues to worry about?” wrote a Kirkwood, Mo., parent.

“Some people communicate inappropriately; so shall we outlaw communication for all? Some drive dangerously; shall we ban cars? Telephones have been used to scam the elderly; should we get rid of all phones? Whenever anything is misused by a few people with nefarious [intentions], let’s eliminate the rights of all people, good or bad, to use it for anything. Or perhaps somebody should simply explain to Missouri legislators what it means to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” a reader identified as mathonline wrote.

Another reader, jfbenama, wrote: “So does this law take into account a parent who has [his or her] own child, or relative, in class? Can [this teacher] no longer have a private Facebook conversation with [the student/relative]? What about students who you also deal with in other settings, such as church? Can a youth leader, who is also a teacher, no longer chat with youth members? All you’ve done is tied the hands of good educators and forced the child predators to go back to using the telephone and private face-to-face meetings. Social networking isn’t the problem—I wonder how many of those legislators handle their own Facebook account, or have ever really worked with today’s teenagers?”

Aimée M. Bissonette, J.D., a lawyer at Little Buffalo Law & Consulting in Richfield, Minn., said Missouri’s new law shows there needs to be clear boundaries and rules established for teacher-student electronic communication.

“Teachers need to think about what prompted Missouri’s legislature to pass this law,” she wrote. “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. I speak frequently at conferences and faculty development workshops on this very issue. I urge schools to have frank discussions with teachers and staff about privacy issues and the need to be smart and set limits. Communication with students doesn’t have to be banned, but there are ‘best practices’ teachers should embrace.”

Bissonette listed examples of these best practices, such as:

• 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 should exercise care with privacy settings and personal profile content. Privacy settings can be changed at any time to limit access to profiles and searchability, and changes should be made when necessary.

• Staff members must be mindful of not just their own profiles, but the profiles of their friends as well. Photographs and comments on the profiles of friends that reflect poorly on the staff member must be considered as well. “The permeating and permanent effect of social networking cannot be overstated,” she wrote.

• Staff members utilizing 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 wrote. “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 legislation is not needed.”

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