IT Infrastructure & Management

Schools Tackle Teacher-Student Online Conversations

By Melody Gutierrez, The Sacramento Bee (MCT) — January 17, 2012 3 min read
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California high school teacher Jennifer Kennedy has a prepared response for students who send her “friend” requests on Facebook.

No. Or at least not until they graduate.

It’s a rule she said she shares with fellow teachers at Sacramento New Technology High School.

Increasingly, school district officials across the region and throughout the country are coming up with their own guidelines for what kind of online and electronic communication is acceptable between teachers and students.

Is it OK to be Facebook friends? What about direct messages on Twitter? Or text-messaging from personal cellphones?

“We have a generation of kids who communicate this way,” said Ms. Kennedy, who teaches sophomores and seniors. “If you say absolutely no Facebook or texting, you are cutting off an important relationship with students.”

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In districts with policies against such communication, officials have said social-media sites blur the line between the professional and private lives of teachers. And then there are the rare but widely reported allegations of abuse initiated or intensified through social media.

Last spring, a teacher at Sacramento’s McClatchy High School pleaded no contest to charges he inappropriately touched a 16-year-old student. A police investigation found more than 1,200 messages between Brian Aguilarand the female victim. Mr. Aguilar is no longer employed by the Sacramento City Unified School District, which serves 47,900 students.

States, Districts Take Action

Those are the kinds of abuses that have led some districts and states to step in.

Missouri passed a bill last year that banned electronic communication between teachers and students, but the legislature revised the law after a judge warned it infringed on free speech. Now school boards have been asked to pen their own social-media guidelines by March 1.

The 15,415-student Dayton district in Ohio barred teachers from “friending” students on social-networking sites or sending texts or instant messages to students.

In California, the 19,500-student Folsom Cordova Unified School District has adopted a new policy that advises teachers not to add students as friends on a personal Facebook page and to avoid contacting students privately on a social-media site or through text-messaging.

“The policy is designed to articulate our expectations,” said district spokesman Stephen Nichols. “There needs to be more dialogue about this. It’s not going away.”

The Twin Rivers Unified district, located in northern Sacramento County, is working on a policy that will address online and electronic communication between teachers and students, said district spokeswoman Trinette Marquis.

“We realize this is something we need to have in place,” said Ms. Marquis, who added that the policy will likely provide guidelines for appropriate uses but not bar the use of such communication in the 27,000-student district.

The 61,500-student Elk Grove Unified and Sacramento City Unified districts do not have policies in place, however.

“It’s something we’ve been exploring,” said Elizabeth Graswich, the spokeswoman for Elk Grove Unified.

Restrictions Questioned

Larry Ferlazzo, a teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, said that he’d like to see some training and guidelines, but that “it’s pretty shortsighted” for districts to adopt policies forbidding online communication through social-media sites.

Mr. Ferlazzo, who writes the Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo blog on the Education Week website, said he has exchanged school-related text messages with students and previously friended a current student on Facebook, but his page is not a personal page. It mostly promotes his blogging about education.

“Obviously, there will be stories of abuses or inappropriate stuff, but that could be the case with any tool,” Mr. Ferlazzo said. “If one student feels more comfortable contacting a teacher that way for a recommendation or about a homework assignment, why not?”

Copyright © 2012, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Schools Tackle Teacher-Student Online Conversations

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