Oct. 5, 2010 -- 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.
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.
"There are tons of issues," he said. "I don't think any policy can cover all the possible issues that are there.
"What we tried was to use some common sense," he said of the policy that could be approved by the school board in about two weeks. "We were hoping to prevent problems, not solve current ones."
But some speech advocates offer a word of caution.
"The more schools try to control social media by teachers, the more they are inviting litigation by trying to flush out all the issues," said Randall Marshall, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
By trying to reach into the private lives of teachers and interfere with what they do during their own time on their own computers, schools could be overstepping, he said.
The Manatee proposal that prohibits teachers from posting negative content about the school is of particular concern to him.
Social Media Is Here to Stay
"That is in my mind a wide open invitation for a lawsuit because it so broadly prevents speech by teachers that it does raise serious First Amendment concerns," he said.
To date, he said, most lawsuits involving Facebook and school revolve a student's action. But he said incidents involving teachers could be part of a long-term trend, with legal implications that could be litigated for several years to come.
Mary Ellen Raccuia, instructional technology coordinator for the Milford Public Schools in Connecticut, said that when she works with new teachers, she advises them on online activity but the school stops short of outright prescribing behavior.
"I think we're just kind of watching and we just don't feel like it's our place to tell someone you can't do it," she said. "It's like saying to a teacher you can't go to a local restaurant in town. You can just caution them."
She said she advises new teachers to refrain from "friending" students because if the student posts something troubling to Facebook, the teacher is obligated to report it.
Many teachers heed the advice, but younger teachers in particular have a hard time limiting Facebook correspondence. For teachers fresh out of college, social networking is a natural part of their world.
But Raccuia said situations can get particularly sticky with the 22-year-old teacher, for example, who finds herself connected to a 17-year-old student through friends of local friends.
She also said that Facebook and other online social sites can be effective communication tools and some teachers see it as another good way to support their students.
"It's not going away and it is a great way to communicate," she said. "We're just trying to figure out how to use it appropriately."