Teachers may be people like everyone else, but writing casual comments on social media just like a regular person can get them into hot water pretty quickly if they’re not careful. For instance, this past February in Jersey City, a teacher was accused of sending out inflammatory emails about her students, allegedly referring to pupils as “future drug dealers and criminals.” The district launched an investigation to determine if they were sent by someone else after the teacher denied sending them. The district said someone had sent out “phantom emails” from Jersey City school accounts before.
And this past March, further south in Somerville, a high school teacher was forced to remove her Facebook page after an online petition surfaced calling attention to her alleged homophobic posts.
In Wayne last October, a teacher resigned after she admitted making an inappropriate comment on Facebook, mocking a student’s last name because it contained the word “s—t.” The Wayne school board determined that the teacher had violated the district’s harassment, intimidation, and bullying policy.
Some Hudson County school districts have made their social media policies available on the school websites, but other local towns declined to answer questions about whether they even had a policy.
Teachers should refrain from posting revealing photos or ones with alcohol in hand, Rosenberg said.
The matter can get pretty heated, especially since in recent years, student/teacher affairs have begun or heated up with both parties sending flirtatious texts.
To ward off any problems in that vein, some districts also spell out the prohibition of social media teacher-student fraternization. (Teacher/student affairs do, of course, predate social media, including a notorious case in Bayonne in which a teacher supposedly became pregnant by a student and was eventually sued by a different student over an alleged affair.)
While social media facilitates teacher-student communications, it also leaves an indelible trail for authorities to uncover and follow if such concerns are brought to their attention.
No Facebook ‘friending’
In North Bergen, Schools Superintendent George Solter said that each district has its own policy and regulations based on New Jersey statute.
“We have policy that says that staff members cannot have any student as a contact in their social media,” Solter said.
In the past, some teachers had used Facebook to communicate news to students, but were asked to delete such messages. Teachers are now required to only use school email for communications, because all school emails are archived.
“Kids can email through the North Bergen account,” he said. “That’s appropriate to have a conversation back and forth with. The messages are archived and there forever. If there’s any question, we can go always go back to check the conversation.”
Other social media no-no’s: Instagram and Twitter. Teachers are not allowed to even follow students’ Twitter accounts.
The school district itself tries to do all the communicating it can to parents via social media, but also older methods such as “robocalls.”
“We had our National Honor Society induction the other night and our spring concert,” Solter said last month. “We sent out information that way. Then we posted it on our website. Then, Facebook and Twitter. So the information got out.”
With the fast pace of electronic communications, schools are always looking for the next best system to utilize. Solter said that next year, all students will have school email addresses.
“It will be the main means of communication,” he said. “It will be intradistrict. You can only email a teacher or another student. As long as their address is ‘nbschools.’ And all messages are archived.”
Solter said that all mandated school polices, such as ones about HIV and bullying, are posted, but that the social media policy is not one of them. In-service trainings with teachers about communications with students via social media are held to spell out guidelines.
Solter said there have been no incidents regarding social media infractions in the last two years that he has been superintendent.
“There were no situations with inappropriate conduct with students on social media,” he said. “It’s not an issue at all.”
Some of the policies are very specific. The West New York Board of Education social media policy is six and a half pages long and appears on their website. Staff members can’t post status updates on Twitter or Facebook – or comment on other people’s sites – during work hours unless it involves a school project.
Staff members cannot make defamatory statements about the district, employees, pupils, or their families, and can’t make posts that violate other policies (like discrimination or sexual harassment.)
Any electronic communication requesting, or trying to establish, a personal relationship with a student beyond the teaching staff member’s professional responsibilities is strictly forbidden. Cell phone calls and texts from teacher to student are not allowed, unless prior approval is granted by a principal.
In Weehawken, Dr. John Fitzsimons, interim superintendent, said his school system has a clear policy on social media, but far less restrictive than the one the New York City school system has adopted right across the Hudson River.
The NYC Department of Education policy says that employees should maintain separate professional and personal email accounts, should not communicate with students currently enrolled in the city’s schools on personal social media sites, and that they should use high level privacy settings to control access to their own personal social media sites.
“There’s always the risk that any technology can be abused. You can abuse pencils and crayons,” Fitzsimons said. “But that doesn’t mean there’s not a rightful place for it in school.”
That being said, he realizes no matter what policies are in place, some people will still break rules.
“Common sense would tell you not to communicate something on social media that’s unprofessional,” he said.
And the issue cuts both ways, with children and parents having to use their best judgment, just like teachers are asked to.
“The issue in a nutshell for me is that this technology, with the speed that it has, the number of accesses that children have, either is going to be used responsibly, or like anything else, it can be used in an inappropriate manner,” Fitzsimons said.
The five-page long Weehawken Board of Education social media policy is specific in what is allowed or not allowed with electronic communications. Among the forbidden are communications of a sexual nature, sexually oriented humor or language, sexual advances, or content with a sexual overtone; communications involving the use, or encouraging the use of alcohol, tobacco, the illegal use of prescription drugs or controlled dangerous substances, illegal gambling, or other illegal activities; and communications that include the use of profanities or pornography.
Solter said, “I hope everyone acts professionally. That’s why I remind everyone that it’s archived. Assume you’re being audiotaped or videotaped at all times. You don’t want to say anything that you wouldn’t want me to say.”
In the 900-plus kindergarten through eighth grade student Guttenberg School District, Rosenberg said the staff is fully apprised of the policy, which was put into place last year.
Among the mandates: no Facebook “friending” of students by teachers or vice versa, and no email communications between teachers and students from personal email to personal email.
Teachers must be contacted through their school address. Each teacher has his or her own specific website linked to the district’s overall site.
“We had no problems with student-teacher communications,” Rosenberg said. “We’ve had no issues.”
Rosenberg did say that one teacher who had what the district deemed an “inappropriate” Facebook photo was asked to take it down, and she complied.
She said a lot of social media conduct is common sense, and that teachers should refrain from posting revealing photos or ones with alcohol in hand.
“You’re held to a higher standard than the average person,” Rosenberg said. “You’re a public figure in a way.”
Joseph Passantino may be reached at JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.