Why Can’t We All Just be (Facebook) Friends?
“Facebook me” is a statement that makes complete sense to many. Facebook is one of several social media networking services that allow its users to literally communicate and share their thoughts with the world.
More than 500 million people (approximately 24 million users in the U.S. alone) use Facebook as a primary communication channel. When it comes to education, some states (Utah, North Carolina, Louisiana, etc) have adopted statewide social media policies restricting or barring Facebook’s use between school staff and students.
Minnesota has not implemented a statewide policy, but several school districts like Minnetonka and Anoka-Hennepin have adopted local policies to protect both staff and students from potentially harmful situations, not to prevent communication.
Minnetonka’s policy allows teachers to use Facebook on personal time, but not on school equipment or during school time. Minnetonka’s school board unanimously voted for social media policy which restricts Facebook’s use as an education tool at any time, according to Janet Swiecichowski, the district’s Executive Director for Communications.
The policy doesn’t go as far as preventing students and teachers from connecting via Facebook. One reason is because the district didn’t want to interfere with pre-established relationships between a teacher or staff member who might also be a relative or family friend of student.
The district realizes technology’s power and thus supports its use where it accelerates learning. To that end, the board provides parameters that ensure safety for staff and students, explains school board chair, Karen Walkowski. For example, the district provides “Schoology,” a Facebook-like tool that is password protected.
In Anoka-Hennepin, the use of social networking tools like “Facebook…to communicate with students, parents, staff, or others, except as authorized by the Superintendent, Cabinet member, or school Principal using the district exception approval process” is “unacceptable.”
Patrick Plant, Chief Technology & Information Officer for Anoka-Hennepin, describes his district as cognizant of Facebook as a popular communications medium (the district has a Facebook page) and does not wish to discount it. However, he explains that the district needs to ensure staff and student safety and wishes to abide by federal law which states that districts are required to restrict minor’s access to internet based materials that may be considered harmful or obscene under the Children’s Internet Protection Act.
Even with these policies in place, both districts continue to stress the importance of professional responsibility and conduct and encourage staff to consider any implications of becoming Facebook “friends” with students. The districts also provide social media safety and privacy training for staff.
Aimée M. Bissonette, JD, author of "Cyber Law: Maximizing Safety and Minimizing Risk in Classrooms" praises Minnetonka’s policy. Bissonette believes that it is important for districts to adopt social media networking policies that are not solely based on prohibition but as a reminder that there are real ethical issues and pitfalls of social networking without parameters.
Bissonette explains that other states have filed criminal charges against teachers accused of criminal sexual contact where the initial conversation took place on Facebook. While she has not heard of this situation happening in Minnesota, she notes that we cannot assume that some parents have not had concerns or that staff have not had to explain themselves.
According to Bissonette’s observations, very few districts in Minnesota have policies, let alone have discussions about Facebook’s use. She notes that from a legal standpoint, it is important for schools to remind their teachers of two key factors: the Minnesota Data Practice Act allows individuals to make open record requests that could include requests to review teacher electronic communications and Minnesota teachers are bound by a statutory code of ethics, which if violated, can result in job or teacher license lost. Bissonette strongly advocates for policies that can find a happy medium between prohibition and zero restrictions, with the emphasis on transparency.
Because Facebook, like any other technology or social media tool, is constantly changing, local policies as opposed to state statutes on social networking are ideal. This way, districts can have the flexibility to revise their policies as things change, echo staff from Minnetonka and Anoka-Hennepin who were conscious of framing their policies as broad as possible rather than focusing on the ins and outs of Facebook use.
Bissonette suggests the role of state legislators might be to create a “model policy” with some set strictures which give districts the opportunity to adapt the policy to meet their specific needs.
Because of already established technological alternatives, it’s not vital that teachers and students communicate or be linked through Facebook or widely used social networks to improve academic success or to build strong teacher-student relationships.
We cannot ignore potential dangers. At the same time, we should not separate ourselves from the technologically-based world we live in where technology strongly impacts the way in which we communicate on a daily basis.
Our goal should be to find a fair balance through district-wide policy. Districts must begin to have serious conversations with school staff and families about the role of social network in our interconnected lives. Schools and families will need to work together towards establishing social media policy that best fits the needs of their school communities.