It may come as no surprise that a teacher’s Facebook post stating he was “super horny” and an “A++ in bed” was controversial. However, it may be shocking that a school asked a teacher to resign after discovering her Facebook page had vacation pictures showing her holding a glass of wine and a mug of beer.
Educators’ online behavior is under tremendous scrutiny. Facebook posts have resulted in the dismissal of numerous school employees. A Florida teacher who posted that he “almost threw up” after watching a news story about same-sex unions was asked to resign. After posting that she hated her students’ guts, a New York teacher was suspended. Similarly, a Massachusetts teacher was asked to resign after describing her students as “germ bags” and parents as “snobby.”
According to the U.S. Constitution, citizens have speech and association rights under the First Amendment and privacy rights under the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments. However, the U.S. Supreme Court as well as lower courts have determined school employees’ constitutional rights are not without limitations. Additionally, certain federal and state laws outline unique responsibilities of school employees based on their special role in educating and protecting children. Thus, courts have upheld teacher dismissals when a nexus exists between teachers’ private behavior and their teaching effectiveness.
Litigation has ensued as a result of teachers’ controversial posts. A New Jersey teacher who posted she was a “warden for future criminals” challenged her dismissal, but an administrative court upheld the school’s decision. An Illinois mother sued the school district because her daughter’s teacher posted a picture of her daughter on Facebook and encouraged her friends to mock the seven-year-old’s hairstyle.
What about the more innocent trend of teachers “friending” students on Facebook? Should administrators forbid teachers from “friending” students? Is it legal for schools to regulate what teachers do and say outside of school?
Teachers “friending” students may be innocent in most situations. However, the internet has provided a vehicle for some teachers to develop sexual relationships with students. The recent Penn State scandal accentuates the legal and ethical liability that can result when school officials know about allegations of sexual abuse of students and fail to respond appropriately.
Therefore, administrators and policymakers have questioned whether teachers should be prohibited from communicating with students via social networking to prevent inappropriate relationships from forming. A Missouri law dubbed the “Facebook Law” restricted educators from using social networking sites that allowed “exclusive access” with students. However, after a court cited possible freedom of speech violations in 2011, the law was repealed.
School employees have constitutional rights that must be protected, but it is also important to protect students and safeguard the image of teachers as role models. Yet, teachers and administrators may be unsure of their legal responsibilities surrounding social networking. Part of the difficulty is that technology advances at a quicker pace than legal precedent. Because of this reality, schools are encouraged to implement policies and consider the following recommendations regarding employees’ online behavior.
1. EDUCATE! It’s not enough to have policies, schools should also have professional development about these issues. By doing so, staff are notified about the expectations and have a chance to digest and ask questions about the policies.
2. Be empathetic in policies and actions. Administrators may wish that a school’s computers only be used for educational purposes, but this is an unrealistic expectation.
3. Create separate student and staff policies, because the laws pertaining to these two groups differ greatly.
4. Involve staff in policy creation. This process will help employees comprehend the policies and will likely foster staff buy-in.
5. Be clear and specific. Policies should include rationales, legal support, and commentary with examples.
6. Ensure your policies conform to state and federal law.
7. Include consequences for violations in your policies and implement the consequences.
8. Provide an avenue for appeal and attend to employees’ due process rights.
9. Implement policies in an effective and non-discriminatory manner.
10. Evaluate and amend policies as the law evolves. Much of the law related to technology is in flux. What is legal today may not be tomorrow.
In sum, it is important that school employees understand that they are expected to be role models both inside and outside of the school – even while on Facebook.
Janet R. Decker is an assistant professor of education at the University of Cincinnati, where she teaches education law courses for the educational leadership program. Dr. Decker is a former special education teacher who earned her J.D. and Ph.D. in education leadership and policy studies. She has provided professional development for educators across the nation. Her research and publications focus on legal and policy issues related to special education, charter schools and technology.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.