School districts are under growing scrutiny and criticism for the lack of clear social media guidelines and policies. For instance, after a Michigan teacher reportedly was sentenced to 6 to 15 years for an inappropriate relationship with a minor student that involved numerous communications through Snapchat and text messages, a news investigation criticized the 44% of 84 school districts that had no specific social media policy on the books. In response, a state representative is now pushing legislation that would require all Michigan schools to have such a policy in place by next school year. Our friends over at LRP Publications also forwarded an interesting story about social media guidelines recently issued by Waco Independent School District in Texas, showing that many school districts are updating their social media guidelines for the coming school year. In light of these recent events, school leaders may be wondering if their school district is in need of a social media tune up. How do you know?
Although a board policy is not always necessary, it is prudent to have certain rules in writing for employees with respect to social media. This can be accomplished through handbooks or guidelines, and should cover more than just relationships between employees and students online. The following are just a few issues that should be addressed in good social media guidelines:
- Why can’t we be friends? As noted previously, what, if any, relationship employees can have with students (and parents!) via personal social media accounts is one of the most important issues addressed in social media guidelines. School districts are coming under fire for not having clear policies on this subject. The options on this issue run the gamut from full prohibitions to full permission, with outright bans being called into question as unconstitutional in at least one state. Most school districts’ guidelines fall somewhere in between. For instance, in Waco, certified staff can have personal social media connections with students with whom they have a separate social relationship, but other staff members may not. If you don’t have clear guidelines for employees on this subject, it can make it difficult to address misconduct if and when it arises. And because of the legal uncertainty in this area, legal review of any proposed guidelines is an essential step.
- Blurred lines. Do teachers and other employees know when they can be disciplined for social media misconduct on their personal accounts and on their own time? This language is often covered in a line or two in a board of education policy, but guidelines are a great way to flesh out the parameters for employees. What types of behaviors might put employees at risk? What First Amendment rights do employees have? I have a flurry of in-service trainings scheduled for the fall that will address this and other social media issues, as training can be essential in making sure employees know their rights and administrators do not cross any lines in implementing discipline.
- On the (in)fringe. Although many social media policies only address personal use of social media, employees’ use of social media for professional purposes can also open a can of worms. For example, when employees operate social media accounts for school purposes, they can put the school district at risk of intellectual property infringement suits. Lawsuits for violations of copyright and trademark rights in the social media realm are popping up all over, such as a recent case in which a photographer won $1.2 million dollars over images taken from his Twitter account without his permission. Teachers using content with students can often unwittingly violate copyright laws, both on and off of social media. Ensuring employees know the risks and how to avoid them is an important part of social media training.
- To delete or not to delete? Public entities, including school districts, may not simply delete any comment they do not agree with from their social media accounts. That may mean that if that troublesome community member posts a nasty comment about a board member or administrator on the school district’s Facebook or Twitter page, it may have to stay. But a school district will be in a much better position to delete that comment if it has clear social media guidelines in place that are published to visitors to its social media website. Legal review of such guidelines is also significant, but once a permissible rule is in place and employees are trained on how to properly implement it, the school district will be in a much better place when it comes to troublesome social media comments.
If your school district does not have written guidelines on social media, or if those guidelines are not clear or do not address these and other important topics, it might be time for a tune up. Training employees on these rules, and training administration on how to implement them, is also a crucial step.