Schools draw social media line between teachers, kids
Incidents of teacher and student encounters gone wrong via social media are growing. In February, Marisa Anton, a former New Rochelle school librarian, was sentenced to three years' probation after admitting to trying to seduce a 16-year-old student. It was text messages the boy's parents saw between the two that broke the case, police said.
A 14-year-old Connecticut teen was charged last month with harassment for posting inappropriate pictures of a teacher on line.
"Social media has become part of everyone's everyday life," said Carl Korn, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers. "Teachers are struggling to find the right balance — or deciding not to participate — because while there are rewards, there are also risks."
As schools bring technology into their hallways and classrooms, districts have been driven to craft a patchwork of policies to delineate what has long been a gray area.
School administrators want their teachers to interact with students and parents and encourage them to use social media to send homework reminders or post student work. They also want their teachers to maintain a professional distance, increasingly asking them to sign an "acceptable use policy" or "code of conduct" that forbids them from "friending" students on Facebook or following them on Twitter.
"Any time there are kids involved, there are protocols," said Nyack schools Superintendent James Montesano.
Byram Hills' policy limits teacher-student contact to the district's email system or website.
"So it's traceable," said schools Superintendent William Donahue. "In that regard, we can put limits on that part of their professional life."
Some educators create Facebook pages or Twitter accounts for their classes where they can restrict access and control content. Others create separate professional and personal social-media sites. Most districts now include social media awareness and "netiquette" in their professional-development courses.
Evelyn McCormack, the social media expert for Southern Westchester BOCES, gives social media how-to and warning presentations to schools, school boards and education-based professional organizations. She and her staff have been hired by several districts to oversee Facebook pages, monitor Twitter accounts and view the occasional YouTube video to make sure nothing untoward is posted.
"I still get questions from school board members: 'Why would we even want to (deal with social media)?'" she said. "I think that train has already left the station, and it left a long time ago. It's not humanly possible to stop people from using social media. They've tried it some places and it didn't work."
Adults who don't keep a professional distance from students run an enormous risk, said Chris Salute, a business professor and social media teacher at Mercy College.
"Don't be inappropriate on the Web," he said. "People will find you. It will happen."
New Jersey cyberlaw attorney Parry Aftab has spent nearly 20 years tracking Internet safety issues and giving workshops to parent and school groups to help them navigate the changing rules. She acknowledges the positives of teacher-student social media communication, but emphasizes the risks when she lectures.
Teachers at risk
While there are educators she called "creeps," other teachers may begin a relationship innocently with a text of encouragement that becomes a bond between adult and child, and then a relationship. And while that happens "once in a blue moon — maybe I've handled 10 cases in 19 years — it's too often," she said.
It was evidence from their smartphones, computers and other technology that helped convict Anton and Archbishop Stepinac High School teacher Amanda Iles, sentenced for raping a 14-year-old student, said Lucian Chalfen, spokesman for the Westchester County District Attorney's office.
But while teacher-and-student relationships via social media happen, more often it's teachers who are the victims of student harassment: Students have hacked or faked teacher social-media accounts, made rape or molestation accusations via Facebook or Twitter, edited teachers' faces onto other bodies in photos or slammed them on websites like Rate My Teacher, Aftab said.
Aftab said for every student harassed or sexually stalked on social media by a teacher, there are 10,000 teachers on the receiving end. It's one reason she recommends that schools limit social media contact between student and teacher.
"If they're going to allow it, they need to do spot checks," she said. "There has to be some level of accountability. I think the teachers need to be trained in appropriate versus inappropriate contact. It's a very thin line and you might not realize when you've crossed it initially."
Dan Schultz has three sons in Eastchester schools. His oldest has a Twitter account he uses regularly to connect with his football coach and teammates.
The idea that his son would follow a classroom teacher on Twitter or "friend" one on Facebook, or vice versa, makes him uncomfortable, he said.
"I don't know if I would deem that to be appropriate," he said. "I think there's got to be a little space. You could be a teacher who is a great teacher in the classroom but, outside, they could be doing things I might deem to be inappropriate and don't want my son doing."
Advice for teachers: Don't
Don't "friend" students on a personal Facebook page
Don't post anything you don't want your students' parents to see
Don't contact students through a private or personal email account
Don't expect to remain anonymous online
By Randi Weiner, published on lohud.com