Friend or Foe? Schools Still Struggling With Social Media

The Missouri state legislature stirred up a hornet’s nest last year when it passed a law prohibiting teachers from communicating privately with students on social media. Without much debate, the bill passed easily and the governor promptly delivered his signature. But educators complained that the law would needlessly interfere with how they interacted with students and civil liberties advocates said it also violated the First Amendment. Lawmakers conceded they may have overreached and went to work on repealing parts of the law. By the fall, they had removed the most controversial provision, which barred teachers from using websites that allow “exclusive access” with current students or former students who are 18 or younger.

The new language also required Missouri’s school districts – 529 in all – to adopt policies “to prevent improper communications” over sites such as Facebook.

Districts in every state continue to grapple with the “brave new world” of social media that isn’t really all that new anymore. Many schools, however, are slowly being granted more latitude – thanks in large part to pressure from educators, parents and others – to incorporate social media into classroom instruction, however cautiously.  At least 40 school districts nationwide have approved social media policies. New York City, the nation’s largest school district, has been at work on a policy for more than a year and officials expect to unveil it soon.

In March, the Montclair district in New Jersey lifted certain restrictions on sites such as YouTube so they can be used as instructional tools in the classroom. Officials took this step without formulating a new policy designed specifically for social media platforms. Instead, the district merely uses its existing ‘Acceptable Use’ policy to guide teacher decision-making and student behavior. The YouTube for Schools portal, launched last December, which allows schools to select educational videos scrubbed of user comments and inappropriate “related” content, has given many districts the necessary assurances to unblock the site.

The more vexing issue for schools, however, continues to be teacher-student online interaction. In Pinellas County, Florida, teachers are not allowed to communicate with students through Facebook, Twitter or other private media. According to the policy, “such communication could cause the appearance of inappropriate association with students.”

Ditto the schools in the Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes in Louisiana, which recently approved new policies forbidding teachers from making any kind of electronic contact with students – unless they have express permission from a principal or other administrator. That includes not just Facebook, but also texts and emails.

“It creates the window, and sometimes it can be taken and twisted,” superintendent Phillip Martin told the Thibodaux Daily Comet. “An ounce of precaution is worth a pound of cure.”

That ounce of precaution can also lead to a ton of lost opportunities to engage students and facilitate 21st Century learning, according to Michelle Luhtala, a school librarian at New Canaan High School in Connecticut.  A passionate advocate for free-range media, Luhtala believes educators should be allowed to use social media proactively with their students – and that includes professional interactions on Facebook.

“If it’s ok for teachers to work with students face-to-face throughout the day,” she asks, “then why do you need strict policies and regulations that suggest teachers are unqualified to interact with them online? It really makes no sense.”

Furthermore, Luhtala says, the time has come for school districts to stop vilifying social media. Doing so, she argues, gives students license to act inappropriately online because it’s expected.

“Taking the initiative and showing students how to use Twitter and Facebook responsibly debunks the myth and encourages appropriate use,” Luhtala explains.

Luhtala doesn’t “friend” students on her personal Facebook page but interacts with them on her professional account, where she, her students and her colleagues can interact and collaborate on school-related projects.

Luhtala and other free-range media advocates argue that districts don’t need to tie themselves up in knots formulating new social media policies.  Schools should already have a general conduct policy on the books that clearly defines unacceptable behavior or conduct by students and teachers.

Nonetheless, concocting new policies is the route many districts have chosen. Finding an acceptable professional space for teachers and students is the crux of a new policy recently adopted by the Nashua Board of Education in New Hampshire. Instead of discouraging or forbidding educators from interacting with students on social media, the policy greenlights online communication as long as it is “transparent, accessible and professional.”

Drawing clear and distinct lines, says Brian Rappe, a teacher in Burnsville, Minnesota, will work for educators and their students.

“Social networking a powerful tool for communicating and should not be ignored or rejected by the education community. Districts should set up guidelines to protect their employees and the district. Teachers should have separate sites – one for work and one for personal use and the two should never cross paths.”


The NEA Health Information Network’s bNetS@vvy site provides up-to-date information about online trends and behavior, and offers practical cyber safety tools for use in the home and the classroom.