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Should Schools and Social Media Mix?

By sali Hancock

Rudyard Kipling once said, “Teachers are teachers, and students are students, and neither the twain shall meet … outside of the classroom … ever.” Well, thanks to the Internet, this is no longer the case.

Teachers these days increasingly use the Web to engage students -- in online activities for the classroom, as well as on time off. The legal community warns that this can make teachers and schools highly vulnerable to civil lawsuits. Yet interestingly, some teachers naively ignore the risks in developing online friendships. Their arguments range from “I should meet my students where they are” to “this is an extra line of support that makes students feel safe.”

Although social media is accessible and convenient and can provide certain educational benefits, should your child’s teachers take the risk anyway?

The Role of Social Media in Schools

Imagine your kid’s math teacher friending your son on Facebook and discovering that he is engaged in an illegal activity, like underage drinking. Should the teacher be obligated to report the activity? Could you, the angry parent, sue because the teacher didn’t report the incident and intervene? And are the teacher and school liable if the incident occurs off campus?

The answers aren’t clear here. And if this off-campus social networking takes a turn for the worse, schools are rarely, if ever, prepared to handle the situation. Enough lawsuits have cropped up that now administrators can no longer say, “It didn’t happen on school grounds, so it’s not our problem.”

Even when social media is used for classroom purposes, if the districts, administrators and teachers haven’t created appropriate technology policies around students’ online usage, they are more vulnerable to lawsuits. Your child could be participating in an online project closely supervised by their teacher, yet incidents can still occur when technology usage standards haven’t been adopted by the instructor and passed down to your kid.

“When it comes to online communications,” says California-based attorney Penny Glover, who works with schools to keep policies and practices in line with current laws and changing technologies, “it seems that many schools are operating under the assumption that rules and expectations about certain online behaviors are already engrained in our students’ minds and that they do not need to be stated directly.” Obviously, though, says Glover, the rules aren’t clear to all, especially since students “continue to post things online like, ‘That math test was bad. I’m going to kill my math teacher.’”

What Can Your Child’s School Do?

It all comes down to administrators and educators making it a priority to find out where their schools lie on the digital citizenship spectrum. Through self-assessment, they can clearly recognize the areas that need development -- detection, prevention, incident management and response -- and then create policies and procedures that keep everyone safe and litigious risk down.

Bills and laws are in a constant state of flux, trying to keep up with the emergence of school-based technology issues. In the meantime, schools should take steps to own their Web usage policies for students and staff -- from policy creation to incident follow-up.

If you aren’t sure where your child’s school stands with social media and online usage policies, call up the administrators to find out today. The amount of time, money and energy spent on resolution is considerably lessened when systems are set in place to manage events before they occur.

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