Teachers and Facebook: Know the Risks of Friending Students

Inside and outside the classroom

Young people aren’t the only ones at risk because of their Facebook content. Teachers have been “busted” for their profiles as much as students, and a particularly hot topic is teachers’ use of social networking sites and how much of their online profiles are protected by free speech.

While some teachers see the benefits of using social networking sites to open dialogue between teachers and students (in a forum that may be more comfortable for the shy students who rarely speak in class), other educators worry about the blurring of boundaries between teachers professional and personal lives. Instances of questionable profile content (candid photos, racy or suggestive song lyrics, and references to sex or alcohol or drug use) have gotten teachers suspended, fired, or blocked from being hired.

In one instance, John Bush, a middle-school physical education teacher in St. Augustine, Florida, was fired over what he’d posted on his MySpace page an inappropriate photo and comments. While the district superintendent acknowledged that the content wasn’t pornographic, “the profile contained things that students and parents should not know about a teacher”. This last point is a key fact – it seems that it doesn’t matter so much what the content is, just that students may have access to it.

To friend or not to friend

As some teachers have discovered, friending their students can be risky for both parties. It takes just one child repeating some off-color remark on his friend’s (or homeroom teacher’s) Facebook page to land that teacher in hot water. On the flip side, some teachers have unfortunately used social networking sites to engage in lewd or otherwise inappropriate conversations with their charges.

Even teachers who have taken every precaution to block their online profiles from students and parents have run into trouble. In Ashley Payne’s case, it was some photos of her holding beer and wine glasses on her European vacation and the use of the word “bitch” in a comment that led to her suspension. The high-school teacher from Barrow County in Georgia was summoned to the assistant principal’s office because of an e-mail from an anonymous sender complaining that his or her child had viewed offensive content on Payne’s Facebook profile. The unidentified student was allegedly Payne’s Facebook friend. The offensive content included some ten photos of Payne in European pubs and beer gardens and her note that she was off to play “Crazy Bitch Bingo,” a popular game hosted by an Atlanta restaurant. The school authorities pressured her to resign, Payne claims, even though Barrow officials never determined the legitimacy of the anonymous e-mail.

Payne’s Facebook account was set to the highest privacy level, accessible to only her approved friends, not to any students. Maureen Downey, an Atlanta-Journal Constitution columnist, spoke with Barrow officials and learned that the critical problem wasn’t Payne’s pictures or expletive. Rather, “it was the ‘fact’ that she had given a student inappropriate access to her personal Facebook account. A ‘fact’ for which there is no evidence whatsoever.” Downey made the point that the charges were groundless because the e-mail could have been sent by anyone: “an old boyfriend, a jealous teacher, a nutcase.” The fact that there may have never been an impressionable student viewing Payne’s profile made no difference to the school board; she is currently contesting their decision.

Freedom of speech?

Why the extra scrutiny of teachers’ use of social networking sites? Shouldn’t teachers be free to enjoy a life outside the classroom without it jeopardizing their careers? Standards for professional conduct have always been high for educators. One of the writing services that provide assignment help emphasizes that as late as the early 20th century, teachers followed strict rules that went beyond what they taught in the classroom: “you are not to keep company with men” and “you must under no circumstances dye your hair”.

Even today, people expect teachers to exemplify high moral behavior. To do otherwise is to risk “discredit[ing] the teaching profession,” as Arizona warned in its state certification procedures. While teachers in previous centuries worried about causing a scandal because of nosy neighbors’ eyes, today it’s even harder for them to maintain their privacy. Students and parents can easily Google them or look up their Facebook profiles. The landscape of online, omnipresent social media is still largely uncharted and unfamiliar to many people.

Even the laws concerning teachers’ freedom of speech give only hazy guidelines because some statutes have not caught up with modern technology. For instance, what happens if a teacher uses a social networking site to complain about or protest a school policy? Two Supreme Court cases, Pickering v. Board of Education and Connick v. Myers, are used to balance a teacher’s right to speak freely about subjects of public importance against the school’s need to run effectively.

Under what is known as the Pickering/Connick test, “a teacher could be disciplined for speaking out publicly against a school administrator only if that speech interfered with the efficient operations of the school”. However, there is still not a clear system of handling discipline for “any off-duty free expression of a teacher that is not of public concern”. As of yet, there is no legal litmus test for determining what teachers are allowed to do or say on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube that won’t jeopardize their jobs.

Don’t blur the boundaries

Regardless of whether it is fair, professional conduct for teachers extends outside the classroom. While the legal system and school boards may still be wrestling with the issue of free speech and teachers’ inappropriate web content, teachers need to keep a clear boundary between their professional and personal lives. High school teachers who friend students on Facebook are opening themselves up to scrutiny and recriminations if they post anything inappropriate. People may have different standards of what is appropriate, but the key fact is that there are certain things that students and parents should not know about the teacher.

Readers, what do you think? Should teachers expect the same freedoms of speech that everyone is supposed to enjoy? Do those expectations change when teachers post information on a public online forum like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube? Is it right for teachers to bear extra scrutiny, or is that a natural consequence for anyone who works with children? Please share your opinions in the comments section.

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