THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
ABINGTON

Teacher fired over ‘friending’

By Constance Lindner
Globe Correspondent / May 26, 2011

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An Abington High School substitute teacher and boys’ tennis coach has been fired following what school officials deemed his “inappropriate communication’’ with students on Facebook.

Jon O’Keefe, a 31-year-old Waltham resident hired early this year to replace a teacher on maternity leave, was dismissed last week and ordered off school property while school officials, aided by police, investigate the matter, said Abington Schools Superintendent Peter Schafer.

“We have an ethics policy about appropriate boundaries and behavior, and certainly ‘friending’ students on a social network is not an appropriate boundary to cross,’’ Schafer said this week. He declined to reveal the nature of the allegedly inappropriate communication between O’Keefe and the students.

O’Keefe could not be reached for comment.

No criminal charges have been filed in the case, said Bridget Norton Middleton, a spokeswoman for Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruz. Abington police Deputy Chief Christopher Cutter said his department was still investigating as of early this week.

Abington’s policy about appropriate boundaries and ethical behavior is similar to that recommended for all school districts by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees last fall to help prevent improper fraternization with students on Facebook and other social media.

Among the association’s guidelines are that employees “conduct themselves in ways that do not distract from the educational process . . . [by] improper fraternization with students using Facebook and similar Internet sites or social networks, or via cellphone, texting, or telephone . . . [or] list current students as ‘friends’ on networking sites.’’

Recommendations for employees making electronic contact with students include that the contact be made only with the district’s computer and telephone system and using group texts to all sports team members, as opposed to individual players.

The policy warns employees of “the possibility of penalties, including dismissal from employment, for failure to exercise good judgment in online conduct.’’

“We’re suggesting as a matter of policy that teachers not be able to friend their students on social media like Facebook and that contact be related and restricted to school,’’ said the association’s executive director, Glenn Koocher. “This is a very dangerous area, and social media can easily become an invitation for trouble.’’

Indeed, reports of Facebook career-enders run the gamut, ranging from three New York teachers fired for inappropriate Facebook communication with students to a Cohasset educator who quit after posting comments on her Facebook account disparaging her students and the wider community.

In the Atlanta area, a teacher was dismissed after someone with access to her private Facebook account forwarded her employer a photograph of the young woman with an alcoholic beverage in hand and an expletive-containing caption below.

School officials say that social media have become such a part of everyday life that it is seen as natural to connect online, with little thought of how much trouble could follow.

Use of social media starts early, too, and is often unsupervised, according to a survey appearing in the June 2011 issue of Consumer Reports. According to the publication, 7.5 million of the 20 million minors using Facebook are younger than 13 and more than 5 million are younger than 10. And 1 million of those have reported being the victim of cyberbullying or other unpleasant experiences, the report says.

“Every year we have more episodes exposed, and we fear that for every one we find out about there were probably many we didn’t find out about,’’ said Koocher.

He said that while some may argue that free speech “isn’t checked at the schoolhouse door’’ and prohibiting it might not withstand legal challenge, many schools south of Boston have either adopted the association’s policy or developed their own guidelines to address the issue of appropriate conduct for school personnel.

The Weymouth School Committee voted last December to make official the association’s recommendations regarding online friendships between students and teachers, amending it slightly two weeks ago to permit employees to share in social media with Weymouth Public Schools students who are family members.

Otherwise, the Weymouth school administration prohibits electronic communication by district employees that isn’t appropriate, professional, and for educational purposes and advises against sharing of personal accounts, web pages, or social networks with students.

Cohasset’s Schools Policy and Standards Subcommittee is in the process of putting that policy in place, as well, according to interim schools superintendent David DeGennaro.

“Social media [have] the potential to be an incredibly powerful educational tool, enabling collaboration and communication that is unprecedented, but it also allows unsupervised communication that can lead to real problems,’’ said Matt Ferron, acting superintendent of the Weymouth Public Schools.

Some teachers in Weymouth have used Facebook as an effective teaching tool, which is an appropriate use, but “it’s the stuff that goes on in private lives that causes trouble,’’ said Ferron.

Hingham Public Schools Superintendent Dorothy Galo said her administration doesn’t specifically have a policy for social media but has other policies that address proper boundaries between staff and students.

In Abington, School Committee chairman Russell Fitzgerald pointed out that the situation in question was not about Facebook but a teacher making an inappropriate decision to contact students on a nonschool issue.

Constance Lindner can be reached at cl0734@gmail.com.