Social Media in the Workplace: Setting Contact Limits for Schools to Protect Students

Seal of Missouri.

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As discussed last week in this blog, social media presents risks, as well as opportunities, particularly in the workplace.  Yet another example has surfaced that I think deserves attention and consideration as we all try to work out what is appropriate and advisable in the use or restriction of social media in the workplace.

The state of Missouri passed the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act last week, which is intended to ease the prosecution of sexual predators in the schools, and reduce risks associated with sexual predation.  The law goes into effect at the end of this month, in time for the new school year.  One teachers’ organization is protesting a section of the law that relates to social networking, claiming it is unconstitutional.

The Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minor Students in Schools

The intent of this law, of course, is worthy, and Ms. Hestir’s testimony that supported it is heart-breaking and unfortunately relates a situation not uncommon.   Studies vary on the rate of prevalence of sexual abuse of underage students, but estimates range from 13% to 34% for female students and 7% to 16% for male students, according to a 2004 U.S. Department of Education report.  Clearly, more does need to be done to protect students in schools.

Do Sexual Abusers Exploit Children on Social Networks?
You may wonder if social networks have been misused by child predators.  The answer is yes.  The law was prompted in Missouri after 87 teachers lost their licenses for sexual misconduct, much of it allegedly involving online interactions.   A 2008 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 4% of study respondents said they had received an unwanted solicitation specifically via a social networking site (such as MySpace or Facebook).  And this was a limited sample in terms of age, and measured in early 2008, so we can probably assume that the problem is quite a bit more extensive.  There are other well documented cases of predators using Facebook and other social networking sites to “groom” their victims, such as the incident of a U.K. predator who pretended to be a teenager online on Facebook and other social networks to contact and eventually molest children.

Does The Missouri Legislation Violate the Rights of Teachers?

The controversy that has arisen this week, however, relates to a section of new Missouri law that could be applied to the use of social media:

SECTION 162.069 – By January 1, 2012, every school district must develop a written policy concerning teacher-student communication and employee-student communications. Each policy must include appropriate oral and nonverbal personal communication, which may be combined with sexual harassment policies, and appropriate use of electronic media as described in the act, including social networking sites. Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student. Former student is defined as any person who was at one time a student at the school at which the teacher is employed and who is eighteen years of age or less and who has not graduated.

At first glance, the section seems to be instituting common-sense protections. The requirement that each school district have a social media policy that conforms with state and federal laws is a sound move, although I would hope there would be state-wide resources dedicated to the school districts for developing and enforcing these social media policies.

However the Missouri State Teachers Association has questioned the constitutionality of this section of the new law, once again bringing up the social media in the workplace/free speech issue.  The teachers’ association “opposes one provision that would inhibit educators’ ability to communicate with students via text messaging and social media….infringes on educators’ first amendment rights of free speech, association and religion.”

The lawsuit identifies several ways the plaintiffs believe the new legislation would impact the rights of teachers, (read the petition here), including interfering with teachers abilities to communicate with students about church activities and communicating with their own children who happen to be students.

A.P.’s Alan Zagler reported in his story on this controversy  “State Sen. Jane Cunningham, who sponsored the proposal, said many educators who have spoken against the new rules misunderstand them. The legislation had backing from education lobbyists and organized teacher groups and enjoyed unanimous support from lawmakers.”  Initially, it also had support from the same teachers’ association that is now suing the State of Missouri.

As I read about this controversy, I was torn between what I feel is a legitimate protective measure and the points raised by the teachers’ association.

Limitations on the workplace usage of social media are advisable, and guidelines that clearly specify the boundaries of appropriate teacher-student contact are clearly needed, not only as relates to possible sexual misconduct, but all communication between teachers and students.  I believe the legislation is the right step in the right direction.  Could it be clearer?  Yes.  Is it unconstitutional?  I don’t think so.  According to the teacher association’s blog,

For Facebook and Twitter users, the bill would require that any communications that are made between a district employee and a student must be accessible to the administrators and parents. This would seem to imply that the communication must be publically posted on the Facebook wall and that no personal communications can be made via direct messaging or chats on Facebook. For Twitter, this means you cannot have an account with protected tweets or send direct messages.

Even the teachers’ association is admitting that this does not prevent them from interacting on Facebook or Twitter. It merely prevents teachers from interacting PRIVATELY on Facebook or Twitter, using texting, etc. in a way that cannot be monitored by the school and parents.

My Take on the Situation

I think the teachers association is going overboard, and that their case would have been strengthened had they presented their own recommended remedies.  The legislation does not interfere with their ability to teach, or use social networks in an appropriate fashion as relates to their employment by the school district.

One of the claims of the petition, for example, states that the legislation would interfere with their ability to provide assistance to their students (for example, in detecting bullying).

Plaintiffs have used and are using non-work-related social networking sites as an important avenue for contact with students, both during emergencies and for everyday educational issues, such as when a student has difficulty with a classroom assignment or identifying bullying.

I fail to see how this could not be accomplished in other and more appropriate ways than by confidential interactions on social networks.   Help with classroom assignments can and should be provided at school, or through school-approved online networks, such as Blackboard.  Teachers should not be confidentially contacting students about emergencies via non-work online social networks — that is not their job or role.  And schools have procedures in place for identifying and rectifying bullying that do not involve the confidential use of social networks.  I feel the type of communication cited in the petition could be inappropriately applied or abused, and in many cases over-steps the boundaries of the teacher-student relationship.  After all, these forms of contact cannot be monitored by the schools, and it is workplace-related.  For example, imagine if a teacher asked to friend a high school student on Facebook. Would the student be in a position to decline?  Just as employers should not ask their employees to be Facebook friends, teachers should not ask their students to be Facebook friends.  The students are not in a position to say no, and the teacher, who is a paid employee of the school district, cannot be effectively monitored.  This not only puts the child at risk, it also puts the school system at legal risk.

As a parent, I would not want my minor child’s teacher to communicate with him during non-school hours and in non-school settings, without my and the school’s consent and awareness.  Protections are needed because less than 5% of abuse cases are reported.  As in the case of Amy Hestir, underage student victims of sexual abuse are usually coerced, threatened or shamed into secrecy.  They cannot be relied on to defend themselves without help.  I believe it is far more important that the Missouri schools — and all schools — take steps to institute actionable social media policies and training among their employees, as well as their students, and proceed with legal protections that will keep our students safe at school, and mitigate the risk of litigation against school systems.


About Mary Fletcher Jones

Mary Fletcher Jones is a mom, teacher, and blogger. She is also the creator of "Living Well With Autism," an online resource for caregivers of children, teens, and adults with autism and related special needs.

Posted on August 21, 2011, in Social Media in the Workplace, Social Media Tips and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.


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