Education Law Insights

Are Your Students’ Parents “Friending” Teachers?

Posted by Brian Crowley on September 27, 2012

A recent @IlPrincipals tweet identified an interesting USA Today article: “Should parents ‘friend’ their child’s teacher?” At this time of year when social media policies, procedures and guidelines are being reviewed across the country, another important question school leaders should ask is what they should do if such “friendships” occur. 

The “Parental Paparazzi”

Perhaps the most important thing school leaders should do is to educate teachers of the risks they face if they agree to such “friendships.” If teachers and parents become “friends,” and the parent brings in evidence of what they believe to be misconduct by the teacher on his or her social networking website, the school district may be able to – or even have to – discipline the teacher for that online activity. 

It’s not true, as one commentator suggested on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, that “anything that a parent might object to in your life can be the basis of discipline.” But there are risks from what is becoming known as the “parental paparazzi.” Teachers should be informed that if they agree to online relationships with parents, they are potentially opening their lives to the “paparazzi.” 

Specifically, school districts may discipline their employees for speech that: (1) is made pursuant to official job duties; (2) addresses matters of only private concern; or (3) unduly interferes with the work environment. This includes speech that is brought to the attention of the school by parents. Remember the Massachusetts teacher who was forced to resign after she wrote comments on Facebook describing students as “germ bags” and parents as “snobby” and “arrogant”? As ABC and the Huffington Post reported, she was turned in by parents. So was the transsexual teacher forced to resign over online videos of her performing as a burlesque dancer.

A Paperwork Nightmare

Another issue to consider is whether teachers and parents will communicate with each other on social networking websites about students or other school district business. Such communications arguably would create student records or public records that the school district is required by law to retain and may be required by other laws to access or produce to the public if requested. As we described in a recent FR Alert: Illinois’ New “Facebook Password” Law May Create a Host of Unintended Consequences for Employers, a new law in Illinois prohibits employers – including school districts – from demanding access to social networking accounts of employees or prospective employees. And, as Wired reports, other states have or are considering similar laws. These laws together create quite a sticky Catch 22 for school district employers, who on the one hand are required to retain certain records and on the other hand are not able to obtain them to do so.

One response that some school districts are considering to prevent this paperwork nightmare is prohibiting teachers and other staff from any communication through personal social networking accounts regarding any school district business. Although this wouldn’t prohibit teachers from accepting a parent’s “friend” request, it would prohibit them from using that account to conduct school district business.

It’s All In The Policies

In light of these concerns, it is prudent for school districts to have written rules that delineate approved behaviors by teachers online and allow for discipline of misconduct identified by parents. So it is important for school leaders to make sure school district policies, procedures, and guidelines addressing discipline and staff communications, as well as others, are broad enough to cover the social networking realm. But they should not be too broad. For example, a recent NLRB decision, which my colleague Neil Goldsmith and I analyzed in another FR Alert: National Labor Relations Board Finally Weighs in on Social Media Policies, reminds us that labor boards do not look kindly on limitations of concerted speech by employees on social networking. 

Because striking the balance between these competing legal issues can be tricky, it is important to seek legal advice when drafting or revising relevant policies, procedures, or guidelines, as well as when considering discipline of an employee for online misconduct. I am looking forward to discussing these and other issues regarding social networking policies with school district technology professionals at the Social Media Hands-On Discussion at the TechCon conference presented by Illinois ASBO, Illinois Chief Technology Officers, and Illinois Computing Educators on October 26.

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