School officials have long cautioned employees against inappropriate relationships with students. Headlines about criminal charges attest that such relationships sometimes go too far.
Now, in a world where private contact between teachers and students is a "send" button away, it's not surprising that Northwest Suburban High School District 214 would adopt a staff policy on social networking. The new rules mention Facebook, Twitter and texting and include a ban on student-teacher friendships online. Emails can be sent to students only from district addresses, and texting students is frowned upon in most cases but allowed when parents give permission.
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Such policies are not only smart but necessary, as they can protect students from harm and the district from possible legal trouble. Other districts, including high schools in Barrington and Libertyville, have established similar rules, and more are certain to follow. As they do, however, officials should note some cautions.
In the precarious balance between free speech and the interests of government -- including safety of young people -- social media has taken center stage. A Missouri court recently struck down a state law banning students and teachers from "friending" each other online, saying it was too broad and infringed on the First Amendment rights of teachers. It's a ruling worth noting. Social networking gives a forum to sexual predators and bullies, but a wholesale prohibition now must be weighed against constitutional rights.
In addition, the benefits of electronic communication with students cannot be ignored. Sometimes it's just plain convenient -- a coach calling off practice through a group text, for instance. Or a teacher learning through online sites of the struggles of an at-risk student and being able to offer support and direction. Two years ago, then-Principal Michael Bregy of Jacobs High School in Algonquin gave his cellphone number to all students and asked them to text him if they saw a school safety issue arise. He believed the benefits of a collective watch trumped any downsides of the technology.
Districts also must ensure that putting the brakes on teachers' use of technology outside class does not discourage them from using it to its full potential in class. Increasingly, it's the way kids learn. They will need to be familiar with many platforms to be contributing adults. For example, many state legislatures are using social networking to encourage public involvement.
Whatever new form of communication comes along, teens will be on it and schools must adapt. Social networking policies are needed, but, just like technology itself, they should be works in progress. To school districts with established polices, review them periodically, monitor their effects, watch the trends and be ready to update. To districts considering guidelines, look at the needs of the students and create a policy that will enhance both learning and safety in the best possible way.