School districts consider social media policy

By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / September 22, 2011

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Public school districts are trying to decide if they should give a thumbs-up to Facebook or tweet about school issues as they grapple with how best to use social media to communicate with parents and students.

Lynn and Melrose school committees now are drafting policies to outline how the district and employees communicate through social media. Somerville, which published guidelines last year, plans to soon formalize a policy. Beverly and Danvers are starting to review the matter, officials said.

The challenge is to balance the benefit of social media to personalize learning, such as through a class Facebook page, while limiting the potential for inappropriate personal relationships, educators said.

“We need to educate our faculty, staff and the public on the ramifications of using social networking, and Internet sites, for any school communications,’’ said Lynn School Superintendent Catherine Latham.

Last year, before a policy was under discussion, a Lynn teacher was dismissed for improper use of a social networking site, Latham said.

She declined to identify the teacher or elaborate on the circumstances, citing privacy laws for the former teacher.

The Lynn School Committee will hold a special meeting today at 5:30 p.m. to discuss what its policy should include. One member is looking to address safety and privacy issues.

“I am not a tech wizard, but I am concerned with protecting students and faculty,’’ said Patricia Capano, vice chairwoman of the committee. “At the same time, I really believe we need to embrace social media.’’

Beverly Superintendent Marie Galinski agreed safety should be a priority. “Based on the current climate, where students are on Facebook all the time, we have to make sure they are safe,’’ she said. Galinski hopes to have the policy in place by December.

In Danvers, the School Committee’s policy subcommittee earlier this month identified social media as a topic to address, but a timeline to complete it is not yet known, Superintendent Lisa Dana said.

In Melrose, where some school principals write blogs for school websites, the School Committee met last week for the first time to brainstorm about what the policy should address.

“Technology is expanding more quickly,’’ said Margaret Driscoll, the Melrose School Committee chairwoman. “We have to catch up, and make sure that we are using things appropriately, and responsibly.’’

“We know this technology is being used,’’ added Kristin Thorp, chairwoman of the Melrose School Committee’s policy planning subcommittee. “But we need some guidelines as to how it’s used.’’

The state Department of Education does not require school districts to have social media policies. But any rules must comply with the state’s new antibullying law, which addresses social media as a vehicle for bullying, and the federal Children’s Internet Safety Act, said J.C. Considine, a department spokesman.

“Three critical issues for districts are ensuring they have in place filters, student acceptable-use policies, and provisions to protect against cyber bullying,’’ Considine wrote in an e-mail.

The Massachusetts Association of School Committees and the Massachusetts School Superintendent Association each have published sample policies for school districts to follow.

The MASC policy bans teachers from “friending’’ students on Facebook, and having inappropriate contact through e-mail or phone calls. It also recommends that all online contact be conducted on the school’s computer network.

Communications sent on public e-mail systems are considered public documents under state law.

The policy was sent to 320 public school districts statewide last year, but it’s not known how many have used it. “We know that many districts have adopted, and many have adapted it, to suit their own needs,’’ said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the MASC.

The superintendent association’s policy also puts strict limits on teacher-student contact. Teachers are “encouraged’’ to communicate only about school matters, either by e-mail or through social networking sites approved by the school, according to the policy.

It also stresses professional decorum on the part of teachers.

“No matter what medium of communication a teacher selects, he/she should adhere to appropriate teacher/student boundaries. You are a role model, not a student’s friend; you are his/her teacher, and you should always conduct yourself in accordance with this understanding,’’ the policy states.

The association drafted the policy to help school districts avoid trouble, said Tom Scott, the executive director.

“We are trying to advance the discussion of this issue,’’ he said. “There were several districts that had issues with the use of social media. . . . There was some concern about what could occur when not used properly.’’

Somerville last year published guidelines that ban teachers from “friending’’ on Facebook any students, or former students under age 18. They also do not allow for the posting of “inappropriate or disruptive content.’’

The guidelines were written after two incidents were reported to school officials, Superintendent Anthony Pierantozzi said.

One incident involved a staff member who posted pictures “deemed to be inappropriate,’’ Pierantozzi said.

The other involved a complaint by a parent that a staff member was contacting her child through a social networking site. Neither incident resulted in any discipline of the teachers, Pierantozzi said.

“The staff members, when contacted, were very cooperative,’’ he said. “But it did [prompt] me to realize that we should remind people of the inherent potential for problems in unlimited social networking.’’

Pierantozzi now plans to turn those guidelines into a formal policy. “We are still contemplating what it will say,’’ he said. “We know we need to clearly guide our teachers and staff about how they use social networking.’’

Kathy McCabe can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.

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