Texting, 'friending' a morass for educators
When Sidney Alvarez became Avonworth public relations director, he thought a Facebook page might be a simple way to spread the word about goings-on in the school district.
But as Mr. Alvarez and school employees nationwide have discovered, when it comes to students and social media, nothing is simple.
The school now has a robust Facebook presence, with updates every few hours that reach more than 700 students, parents and community members. But Mr. Alvarez and the Avonworth administration have had to make countless ethical and policy decisions balancing the ease of communication versus student safety and decorum. Should comments be allowed? What about student photos? Should the district allow its logo to be used on parent-created fan pages for sports teams?
"It's such a new medium that people are exploring," said Mr. Alvarez, who came to the district two years ago. "You just have to proceed cautiously."
Across the country, governments and school districts are struggling to keep up with the furious growth of social media -- and its grip on how young people communicate.
Last week, the Virginia Board of Education was scheduled to vote on a policy that would ban all texting, social networking and online gaming between teachers and students. Voting on the policy, which was intended to prevent sexual misconduct, was postponed until next month to allow for more public comment.
The state of Louisiana in 2009 passed a law requiring school districts to document every instance of electronic communication between teachers and students on a "non-school-issued device, such as a cellphone or e-mail account."
Large school systems, such as the Lee County public schools in Florida and the Granite School District in Utah, have also banned teachers and students from becoming "friends" on Facebook.
While the North Allegheny School District did not go that far, it issued a policy in September urging its staff members with a social media presence to "be sensitive to the fact that they are viewed by the public as role models." Other local school systems, such as Avonworth and the Propel charter schools, are currently crafting formal social media policies.
In Avonworth, anyone who is a fan of the school district on Facebook could find out on Thursday about a fundraiser at Max and Erma's to raise money for the Key Club, or that two girls' volleyball players made the all-WPIAL team. But student groups do not use Facebook to organize meetings there, said Mr. Alvarez, as they do in many other districts.
And while the district hasn't decided yet on whether to allow teachers and students to be Facebook friends, it does strictly prohibit texting between teachers and students on non-school district-issued cellphones.
"It's for the protection of the teacher as well as the student," he said.
The problem, to some extent, is that social media breaks down the walls between what was a previously clear distinction between "on-campus" and "off-campus" activities, said Montana Miller, an associate professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and an expert in social media and Internet ethics.
To Dr. Miller, there is no situation in which students under 18 should be Facebook friends with their teachers.
"The student may not realize that by friending their teacher, they are revealing details about their home life that the teacher may feel compelled to judge," she said. "The teacher is in an impossible position once they have access to that kind of private activity."
Even among her college students, Dr. Miller has been put in uncomfortable positions. She tells her students that while she prefers to keep her student interactions off Facebook and she never "friends" any of her students, she will accept friend requests from them. She then gives a lecture about the hazards of using Facebook.
Despite those warnings, she regularly finds herself in "tricky dilemmas" about what she sees on Facebook. "I've seen posts from students that make me wonder about their mental health, that they'll do something self-destructive, or wonder if it is my duty to contact them."
There are also, of course, hazards for teachers. No one knows this more than Ginger D'Amico, a Spanish teacher in the Brownsville Area School District, who was suspended last year after she was "tagged" in a photo on Facebook of her with a male stripper at a bachelorette party.
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Ms. D'Amico sued the district and was reinstated with back pay and a clean record.
As Facebook grows in popularity, there are relationships of all sorts that lead to awkward power imbalances: bosses and employees, doctor and patients, priests and parishioners. But with minor students and their teachers, Dr. Miller sees particular problems.
A teacher who can no longer judge a student fairly after seeing profane comments, for example, or a student who complains bitterly about the unfairness of a test.
"The problem is that it shatters this boundary that has to be there when a minor is in the position of being powerless under this teacher who can really affect their entire lives," she said.
Where Ms. Miller sees the problems inherent in social media, Frank LoMonte sees possibilities.
Mr. LoMonte is the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a group headquartered in Springfield, Va., that assists student journalists with free speech and open government legal questions. He became involved in the issue of texting and social media when a journalism teacher contacted his organization over concerns about how the proposed Virginia policy would affect journalism instruction.
For many high school students, social media and texting are so ingrained into the school day that banning them would do more harm than good, he said.
The most sophisticated student newspapers that his organization works with already recruit writers and editors via Facebook and update their stories using Facebook and Twitter.
"In terms of teaching journalism," said Mr. LoMonte, "all experts will say that journalism and social media are merging and that to get a complete education, students need to learn Twitter and the tools of social media. We don't want to handcuff teachers by making them fearful that a Twitter or Facebook message to the staff of the yearbook will get them dragged in front of a disciplinary committee."
And from a purely logistical standpoint, said Mr. LoMonte, texting can actually improve student safety. He speaks at numerous conferences, he said, and regularly sees students and teachers texting to track each other down.
The proposed Virginia policy does allow for texting as an emergency communication but requires that such contact be reported in writing the next day.
For Mr. Alvarez in Avonworth, safety is his primary concern. On the school district's Facebook page, he never posts photos of individual students -- only groups. He doesn't identify students by name, and removes the name labels if students tag themselves.
He's asked that fan pages run by parents adhere to the same guidelines, though he can't actually control what others post on the Internet.
"There are no marketing dollars for schools anymore, so this is a wonderful way to communicate," he said. "We just advocate using caution."
First Published January 16, 2011 12:00 am