Norton warns teachers not to ‘friend’ students

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / October 25, 2010

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In the hazy realm of cyberspace, one school district is drawing a sharp line: Virtual friendships between teachers and their students are a bad idea.

Worried about the potential risks of online interactions, the school board in Norton last week urged teachers not to become friends with their students on Facebook and other social media sites and advised them to avoid friendships with former students as well.

Tom Golota, a school board member, said the ban is designed to maintain a divide between teachers’ professional and private lives and send a message that becoming too friendly with students is not acceptable.

“We want to head it off at the pass,’’ Golata said. “Teachers know this already, but we wanted to have something official on the books.’’

Under the policy, proposed by Patricia Ansay, public schools superintendent, teachers are urged to contact students only through the school’s electronic system and not give out their cell- or home phone numbers.

Norton’s restrictions mirrored statewide recommendations issued last month by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, which urged officials of the “importance of maintaining proper decorum in the online, digital world,’’ and warned against “improper fraternization with students using Facebook and similar Internet sites or social networks.’’

The policy urges superintendents to “periodically conduct Internet searches to see if teachers have posted inappropriate materials online,’’ and discipline violators.

Glenn Koocher, who directs the association, said the policy is designed to protect children and that administrators will use good judgment in monitoring teachers’ online activity. “There’s a concern about responsibility and liability,’’ he said. “It’s important to keep the kids safe.’’

Administrators would probably only search teachers’ pages after receiving a complaint or had suspicion of something untoward, he said.

The statewide policy also urged teachers not to post items with sexual content or anything that advocates the use of drugs and alcohol.

The Internet has blurred the lines between school and home and made it far easier for teachers and students to communicate outside of class. Teachers often use school websites to post assignments and other class materials and typically correspond with students and parents by e-mail. Some teachers have used Facebook to communicate with their classes as a whole and show parents what they are studying.

Forging friendships on social networking sites, however, gives students a broader look into teachers’ personal lives, and risks exposing them to adult content. For that reason, most schools discourage teachers from becoming Facebook friends with students and warn against overly familiar communication.

“Certainly it’s not a recommended practice,’’ said John Antonucci, Westwood schools superintendent. “You need to maintain a professional distance.’’

Many schools have no explicit policy on social networking sites, but officials say they discourage friendships. Danja Mahoney, a Latin teacher at Reading Memorial High School, gently denies the occasional student request for friendship.

“I tell them ‘You don’t want to be my friend,’ ’’ she said.

It is also important, Mahoney said, to keep her personal and professional lives separate.

In Boston, all public school staff members are required to sign an Internet use policy, although the district does not have a policy specific to social networking sites. Shrewsbury’s social networking policy calls for educators to use their professional judgment to avoid “circumstances that could be considered inappropriate.’’

In Norton, officials said the policy is preemptive.

“There was no incident that prompted this policy,’’ Ansay wrote in an e-mail. “It is an effort to keep our staff members and students safe while using new technologies, especially in light of recent incident in other communities [and] states.’’

This week, the New York Post reported that three educators from New York City high schools were fired for having inappropriate dealings with students on Facebook. In August, school officials in Manchester, N.H., warned teachers against being Facebook friends with students, and an administrator in the Cohasset public schools was asked to resign over Facebook comments disparaging the town.

“These are some of the concerns,’’ Golata said. “If nothing else, you don’t want it to look like favoritism, by being friends with some students but not others.’’

Reports that Norton administrators would monitor teachers’ personal Facebook pages to insure compliance were false, school officials said.

“It came across as ‘Big Brother will be watching,’ ’’ Golata said. “But I don’t foresee anyone within the district doing any monitoring.’’

Ansay said she was meeting with teachers to amend and clarify the language before formally instituting the policy and stressed that school officials would not be actively monitoring Facebook accounts.

“If an incident arises, it will be thoroughly investigated, as we have always done, even though we didn’t have a policy in place,’’ she wrote.

Chris Ott, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said the policy potentially infringes upon teachers’ freedom of speech.

“Teachers and students have private conversations all the time,’’ he said. “It’s not clear why electronic conversations are different.’’

The recommendation that teachers not be Facebook friends with former students seemed excessive, he said.

Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the policy seemed blunt but well-intentioned.

“Generally, we don’t like flat dictums,’’ he said. “But I think it’s good advice for teachers to maintain professional boundaries.’’

Teachers are role models, Toner said, and need to act that way to earn students’ respect.

“I used to tell my students ‘I’m not your friend,’ ’’ he said. “I’m your teacher.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at

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