Risk Management |
Article by Leah Thayer
From the Jan/Feb 2015 Net Assets
News stories are rife with scandals involving high school students sexting, bullying and otherwise acting badly online, but adults don’t always think through the implications of their social media behavior either. Consider these incidents involving independent schools:
Whether arguably hurtful, negligent, unprofessional or criminal, incidents involving social media are multiplying the headaches facing independent schools. The law is evolving quickly with regard to what employers, including schools, can or cannot do based on employees’ use of social media. As a matter of practical sense, however, there’s little disagreement that schools should be proactive in articulating to students, and staff and even parents, their expectations for appropriate usage.
What is less clear is what those expectations should be—and how much monitoring the school should do. Or how much the school realistically can do, given the lightning-fast pace of technological change.
“You’ll hear lawyers say absolutely block everything; lock it down!” says Jennifer Carey, an edtech blogger (http://indianajen.com) and director of educational technology at Ransom Everglades School, an independent school in Miami for grades 6–12. Sure enough, some schools, districts and even states bar relationships enabled by new technologies between teachers and students. “But social media is still evolving so fast, and the reality is you can never eliminate risk,” Carey adds. Even if a school strictly controlled what students can do on campus, “we forget that they all go home to an unfiltered Internet. And they have it in their pockets too.”
“Every day it’s something new,” says Caryn Pass, a lawyer at Venable LLC who represents independent schools across the country. For some time, much of the buzz has been over sites like YikYak and Ask.fm, which let users post anonymously, leading to all manner of offensive commenting. By now, “even Snapchat’s almost old!” she adds.
For her part, Pass does not advocate for strictly banning social media on campus, or necessarily banning all online interactions between students and staff. “Every school is different, with its own culture and definitions of appropriate behavior,” she says. There’s also a case to be made that school professionals should meet kids where they are—which increasingly means at their digital hangouts. One reason schools are often caught off-guard by social media problems “is because we have cut off this relationship between teachers and students,” says Vicki Davis, also an edtech blogger (www.CoolCatTeacher.com) and a technology instructor at Westwood Schools, an independent preK–12 school in Camilla, Georgia.
However, online connections bear responsibility, and if a teacher is friends with a student on Facebook, for instance, and that student’s page shows “kids having a drinking party with bongs all over the place, it may be the teacher’s responsibility to notify the school,” Pass says. “The question schools need to consider is once employees have access to a student’s information, are they responsible for that information?”—never mind if they rarely check Facebook. “It’s a cost-benefit analysis. Each school needs to consider the benefits of friending students vs. risks that may be created.”
Likewise, when teachers and parents are friends on Facebook, follow each other on Instagram or join one another’s network on LinkedIn, “teachers may learn things about parents that may or may not be good,” and vice-versa, says Pass. This, along with the simple notion of being “friends,” real or virtual, can compromise a teacher’s ability to take a firm stand on grades, discipline and more—or the perception that he or she can.
“Kids are not the ones doing the oversharing,” observes Carey. Even if teachers carefully curate their own social media pages, they may find themselves in hot water for relatively benign discussions, like complaining about their day at work. Moreover, she says, for many adults the entire social media world is so alien that “I think adults need to be given tools on how to use it socially and professionally.”
So how can schools mitigate the risks of social media without impeding anyone’s right to free expression? While neither she nor other legal experts believe schools should monitor all online behavior, “I do think independent schools need to be more vigilant than your average employer because of the community they serve,” says Grace Lee, NBOA’s vice president of legal affairs. “They’re best-served by putting forth very clear policies and providing very good training in terms of appropriate boundaries and conduct,” even on personal time. “Obviously people have rights outside of school, but once it’s on social media it’s not private any more.”
At a minimum, review and refresh your acceptable use policy (AUP) at least once a year and preferably with legal counsel, given the evolving law and rapid emergence of new technologies. Written policies should outline usage expectations for social media, along with disciplinary outcomes in the event that any activities affect the school environment. Carefully draft yours to apply to employees as well as students. The challenge “is that the landscape changes very rapidly. The social media students use today will be outdated by the time most adults are even aware it exists,” Pass says. For that reason, rather than trying to include all possible platforms (impossible), “give specific examples of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Also, be certain that the policy gives the school the flexibility to take action when the behavior is inappropriate—even if it isn’t specifically listed in the policy.”
Whatever those policies are, reinforce them continuously through staff training and conversations with students and parents. “I’m a big believer in repeating the message,” says Pass, and not only to impact behavior positively. “Should discipline be necessary, it will be harder for students, parents or employees to claim they weren’t aware of expectations if you can show that the message was delivered multiple times.”
“The biggest piece is that schools need to be vigilant in making sure faculty and staff maintain appropriate boundaries between themselves and students,” says Lee. School professionals may have a duty to report inappropriate conduct between students and adults, as well as students at risk of endangering themselves or others.
As for Vicki Davis, whose school does not prohibit this kind of connecting, she lives by the philosophy that students and some teachers should connect online—but only within defined parameters. “For years I said we should have no relationships at all with students on social media,” she says. She changed her mind last spring, when a potentially suicidal teenager in Ireland (where teachers can be fired for connecting with students on social media, she says) tagged her in a tweet. Davis was able to help the girl, “and then I thought of other students who’ve had a crisis and contacted me. I’ve had students send me Skype messages about issues.”
Today Davis is an outspoken advocate for tightening the online bonds between teachers and students (see the five-minute talk she gave in October at the Bammy Awards: http://bit.ly/1AgCLm2). “I tell my students they can friend and unfriend me if they need to, but they need to know that they’re communicating with me as a teacher, in my professional capacity,” she says. To that end, she documents all such exchanges with screenshots that have time and date stamps.
This approach isn’t for everyone, Davis acknowledges. For one thing, she says, “I know some teachers who can’t be trusted to say the right things in the classroom, much less on social media.”
For her, though, the policy works. “I’m like that teacher who says you can call me in the middle of the night,” she says. “Do we really want students in crisis finding random, untrained strangers with no connection to their school or their parents? Untrained creeps?”
In October, an appellate court in Georgia ruled that the parents of a seventh-grade student may be negligent for not getting their son to delete a fake Facebook profile he created that defamed a classmate. While that may be an extreme example, parental engagement should be a key focus within a school’s social media program—not just to give parents a better grasp of what their children are doing (and how they can influence it), but also so they can model appropriate usage.
Pass is concerned that parents often believe they are not responsible for monitoring their child’s behavior on social media. While she doesn’t expect parents to stalk their children’s digital media footsteps any more than she expects schools to, “It’s a teaching moment,” she says. “It’s like homework. It’s not just the responsibility of the school, or of the parents to work with their child. I really think it’s a cooperative effort.”
At Providence Day School, a preK–12 school in Charlotte, North Carolina, parents are a key audience of a comprehensive “digital citizenship platform.” Not only are its guidelines and policies incorporated into the student handbook (which students and parents sign to acknowledge they have read), but the platform also includes a multimedia iBook and an extensive series of in-person conversations called “Parenting in the Digital Age.” Goals include helping parents “self-identify that they’re not always modeling the appropriate behavior,” explains Matt Scully, the school’s technology director, an English teacher and an edtech blogger (http://engagethelearner.net). “It’s tough to ask your kids to do something if you’re not doing it yourself.”
The program is decidedly positive in its tone. “A punitive approach creates a me-versus-you and us-versus-them mentality,” Scully says. “We really felt that if we were going to be successful, all constituent groups within the community would need to be part of the conversation.” Parents in particular should feel empowered to “create their own rules and set their own expectations,” he adds. To that end, the “Parenting” sessions are held twice monthly (morning and evening times) and sometimes attract as many as 40 or 50 parents for topics such as “There Is No Delete” and “Manners Matter.”
(See the Providence Day School platform at http://pddigitalcitizenship.wordpress.com. A free digital citizenship program created by Common Sense Media is used by about 60,000 public schools: https://www.commonsensemedia.org/educators/curriculum.)
Experts also cite other important social media concerns for schools.
One is to closely monitor and control your school’s sites as well as use of its name and intellectual property on other sites. Obtaining trademarks is just the start. (See “Brand Equity: Protecting Your School in a Counterfeit Culture,” March/April 2014 Net Assets.) For instance, if your school lets people post on your Facebook page, be sure it includes language that the school controls content and has the right to remove anything inconsistent with its mission and culture, Pass says. “We are seeing more and more incidents of unhappy students and disgruntled parents posting on school Facebook pages.”
Similarly, be sure the school has permission to use student photos, especially on social media and in promotional materials. “Schools can expose themselves to substantial liability if they fail to obtain permission,” Pass says. A number of schools have also started asking permission from faculty and staff before using their photos, she adds.
It’s also a good idea for every school to have at least one employee with an ear to the ground on social media developments—and preferably who is also a trusted advisor to students. “The number one complaint I hear from teachers is, ‘I’m always the last one to know’” about a student’s problems, says Davis. Pass recalls when sexting arrived on the scene. “A number of administrators who were not familiar with sexting instructed students to forward the ‘photo’ to their personal cell phone in order to maintain proof that the photo existed. Imagine their surprise.”
Scully is in the know at Providence Day School, in part due to his involvement in the edtech community and being the parent of two teenagers. “But I’m also an advisor to a group of junior boys, and I ask them what’s the latest and greatest.” That’s how he learned, recently, about the many apps students use to hide photos, including some that function and look like calculators.
Really, though, who can keep up with it all? Davis ponders whether schools should create a new role: a “social media certification.” These individuals should be trusted by adults and students alike, and should have clear guidelines for what is expected of them. “If we want our kids to be safer, we want teachers in their lives,” she says. “I think we have been too focused on what can go wrong with social media. But we haven’t focused on the potential liability of not having teachers involved in students’ lives.”
Sign in to leave a comment
Get Net Assets NOW
NBOA's free twice-monthly newsletter
1400 I Street, NW, Suite 675Washington, DC 20005www.nboa.org