public school teachers may not contact students through personal pages on Web sites like Facebook and Twitter, but can communicate via pages set up for classroom use, the Education Department said Tuesday after it released its first list of guidelines governing the use of social media by employees.
The guidelines do not ban teachers from using social media and, in fact, recognize that social media can offer tremendous pedagogical benefits. But they do reflect growing concerns about the instantaneous electronic ease with which teachers can interact with students, not just in New York City but around the United States.
“If a particular type of behavior is inappropriate in the classroom or a professional workplace, then that behavior is also inappropriate on the professional social media site,” the guidelines state.
The guidelines come as education officials around the country grapple with whether to restrict use of social media and other communications, like cellphones and texting, acknowledging that such access is freighted with the potential for misuse or abuse.
In New York City, the guidelines, which were reported Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal, are the Education Department’s latest response to a spate of episodes involving teachers and other school employees accused of behaving inappropriately with students. At least seven employees have been arrested in the last few months on sexual offenses involving students, and the schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, is pushing to fire several tenured teachers accused of such offenses.
In recent years, dozens of teachers have been investigated for inappropriate interactions and relationships with students that began with or were conducted on social media Web sites, according to Richard J. Condon, the department’s special commissioner of investigation. In 2009, for instance, there were 14 accusations involving Facebook; in the first 11 months of 2011, there were 69.
The guidelines say, in general, that teachers should maintain separate professional and personal Web pages. They may not e-mail, “friend” or otherwise communicate with students via the teachers’ or students’ personal pages. They may communicate via professional pages, devoted to classroom business like homework and study guides, but must get a supervisor’s approval before setting up the pages. Parents will have to sign a consent form before their children can participate on those pages.
And teachers should “have no expectation of privacy” when using social media, because principals and other officials will be on the lookout for “questionable” behavior.