Should Teachers and Students Be Facebook Friends?

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Teachers may be masters of the classroom, but some are still struggling to learn the ABCs of social networking, where the line between the professional and the personal blurs all too easily.

As Facebook, Twitter and others have grown in popularity, more and more U.S. teachers have reportedly been disciplined -- even fired -- for sharing photos and messages deemed inappropriate by their school systems.

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Facebook on the Silver Screen

So some school districts are trying to get a leg up on social media in schools, drawing up policies that outline what teachers can say and whether they can "friend" their students online. But the policies aren't without critics, who say school restrictions on social media may infringe on teachers' speech rights in the coming years.

A Massachusetts teacher was asked in August to resign after posting comments on her Facebook wall describing students as "germ bags" and parents as "snobby" and "arrogant." Although the teacher said she intended the comments for her close friends only, her privacy settings were open enough that others in her town could see what she had to say.

In Manatee, Fla., a teacher was recently suspended without pay for five days after writing on Facebook that he hated his job and his students.

As a result, all teachers in Manatee are on the verge of facing new rules regarding what they can and cannot say on social media sites.

"That teacher made a post that said, 'I hate my kids, I hate my job, I don't want to go to work.' … That's something that's going to affect your ability to do your job," said John Bowen, an attorney for the Manatee School District.

"If you wouldn't say it in the classroom, use common sense. Don't use it in some other media that may get out to students and parents. It may be you can say those things privately all you want, but if it gets out to the wrong people or students and parents, then it becomes our business."

The school board will vote within the next month on a policy that hems in teacher behavior online, he said. Teachers are allowed to "friend" students on Facebook but not to communicate with them online without notifying parents first.

Speech Advocates Advise Caution

The new policy also limits what they can say on Facebook and comments that cast the school or students in a negative light are out of bounds, he said.

Bowen said Facebook can be a valuable tool and officials don't want to restrict access altogether but want teachers to know that if they "extend the classroom to cyberspace, the rules go with you."

If a teacher violates the rules, he or she could be subject to a letter of reprimand, a suspension or an outright dismissal if the actions are egregious enough, he said.

School administrators in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, for instance, are considering a similar proposal that would ban teachers from "friending" or "following" students on social media sites and limit online communication to school-related correspondence only.

"We were not doing this as a reaction to any specific incident," said Richard Whitehead, superintendent of the College Community School District in Cedar Rapids. "We're simply doing it because social networking is growing so rapidly … and we just think our teachers, in order to protect themselves and students, need to use it in a common sense kind of way."

Teachers in his district are encouraged to use Facebook but also urged to use it wisely.

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