By KIM ARCHER & ANDREA EGER World Staff Writers
Published: 1/22/2012 2:21 AM
Last Modified: 1/22/2012 7:02 AM
Social media can be a valuable tool that public school teachers use to connect with and engage students in learning.
Yet the potential for some school employees to misuse the technology has school districts across the country developing guidelines to guard against inappropriate teacher-student relationships.
"Social media can be a good tool for communication, as long as we keep that communication on a professional level," Skiatook Superintendent Rick Thomas said.
An attorney with the law firm that represents most school districts in northeastern Oklahoma said high-profile cases resulting in teacher firings and even lawsuits across the country demonstrate the need for establishing "common-sense" expectations.
"Based on our experience, it is the principals and teachers who are asking for guidance. They don't want to do anything that puts their jobs in jeopardy," said Cheryl Dixon, with the firm of Rosenstein, Fist and Ringold. "A lot of the guidelines we give are common sense - use good judgment, respect appropriate boundaries."
Right to free speech
While school employees have the same free-speech rights as any other citizens, case law does allow school districts to address off-campus behavior if it is disruptive or potentially disruptive on campus, she explained.
For example, a Massachusetts teacher was forced to resign in August 2010 after she called students "germbags" and referred to parents as "arrogant and snobby" on Facebook.
And in January 2007, a high school art teacher in Virginia was fired after a YouTube video of him creating print art using his buttocks while wearing nothing but a thong, a towel on his head and fake nose and glasses made its way to the school.
"They do have the right to speak out on matters of public concern, but one of the biggest areas of concern is venting or communicating personal frustrations," Dixon said. "A good question to ask is if a fellow teacher, administrator or even a parent or student saw that, would they get upset about it? Will it compromise their effectiveness in the classroom?"
In addition to social-networking sites, such as Facebook and Myspace, school districts' guidelines and policies apply to personal blogs and websites, plus micro-blogging sites such as Twitter, and even text messaging.
Because the Internet has become an important tool for communicating, some schools have procedures for allowing teachers and administrators to operate class Facebook pages.
"Since most schools block access to social-networking sites, some will even grant access from school computers. It's better this way because administrators can get on and look and so can parents," Dixon said.