A school district in Florida is advising teachers not to "friend" students on social networking sites, claiming that teacher-student communication through this medium is "inappropriate."
Earlier this week, Lee County school officials issued a list of guidelines to all district employees suggesting they don’t correspond with students through sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. The guidelines for the 2010-2011 academic year also warned employees to be careful when using communication to prevent legal or workplace issues that could surface.
"It is inappropriate for employees to communicate, regardless of the reason, with current students enrolled in the district on any public social networking website," the guidelines said. "This includes becoming 'friends' or allowing students access to personal web pages for communication reasons."
This is the first school district in the state of Florida, possibly even the country, to issue teacher-protocol guidelines for social media.
"The guidelines weren’t issued from a punitive standpoint, but a proactive one. We don’t want teachers and students to do something they might regret," said Joseph Donzelli, director of communications and printing services at Lee County Public Schools.
"We’ve heard stories from across the country about people posting things on Facebook that have come back to haunt them. We aren’t the Internet police or Big Brother, we just want our teachers and students to make good decisions – and these guidelines will help them do so," Donzelli told TechNewsDaily.
The guidelines are not mandatory by the Lee County School District, but rather suggestions for teachers to follow.
"Everyone knows that there are teachers nationwide that may have inappropriately communicated with students through email, text message or Facebook -- and even some cases, those teacher-student relationships have been taken to an even further level of inappropriate behavior," Donzelli said. "We are advising teachers to make good decisions online so they don’t get themselves into trouble later."
The idea surfaced when Donzelli and some colleagues started to discuss how school districts weren’t taking preventive measures to safety, awareness and protection between the school and social media communities.
"We are among the first school districts to step in and create guidelines on this topic, and we believe that other schools out there will start to craft similar guidelines for their districts in the future," Donzelli said. "Some of these guidelines seem like common sense, but often, common sense isn’t always so common. It’s easy for people to overlook things on Facebook that can get them in trouble."
In January, for example, a teacher from Pennsylvania was suspended after another school district employee posted photos of her on Facebook from a bachelorette party. Although the images were online for less than a day, pictures of her with a male stripper were seen by many of her students.
The case caught the attention of The American Civil Liberties Union, who settled the suit earlier this week. The teacher was cleared and will be paid back wages for the time she was suspended.
"Educators just need to unfriend students immediately to prevent incidents like this from occurring," Donzelli warned. "There’s no reason why an employee should be friends with a current student, especially when there are other ways to communicate with them through school-based websites or email."
As social networks continue to grow, many teachers are utilizing these sites to get news out to students and organize activities. Although the Lee County school district recognizes this growing trend, it’s asking teachers to refrain or notify supervisors when they use social media sites for education-related reasons.
"There are other ways to reach out to students that doesn’t involve social networking," Donzelli said. "Teachers should work with their school’s Webmaster to set up Web pages where people can interact and discuss projects and events."
The community response has so far been positive, according to Donzelli, and the new guidelines are reminding people that "everything applicable to your personal life doesn’t translate to your professional life."
"However, if teachers are going to continue interacting with their students through these sites, they just need to very careful," Donzelli said.