Commentary

School District Bans Online Contact Between Students, Teachers

Schoolroom

What would you do if you were an educator and you were presented with a revolutionary new medium, with the potential to totally change the way you teach, manage classes, and communicate with students? I can tell you what I'd do: I'd ban it! Who needs that whole mess?

I'm just kidding. But the same can't be said for school boards around the country. Most recently, Illinois School District 220 in Barrington, IL just passed a sweeping policy banning social media contact -- indeed, digital communication of any kind -- between students and teachers, coaches, and other school district staff. The ban also forbids teachers from emailing students from personal (as opposed to school district) accounts, and also from sending text messages. However, teachers will be allowed to send text messages to students if they get permission from their parents.

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I understand the concern to prevent inappropriate contact between adult educators and students, but this reaction seems a bit draconian. If the issue is keeping the details of teachers' personal lives out of view of their students to maintain their aura of authority, there are less drastic ways of doing this: other school districts have asked teachers to keep sensitive parts of their online profiles private or to create a separate profile altogether to communicate with students. Similarly, if the issue is preventing teachers from posting negative comments about, say, their students or their bosses, it seems to me that should also be pretty simple: something like "Don't do this or you'll be fired" should do the trick.

This leaves what I believe is the real issue in the minds of parents and school district legal counsel: the need to prevent inappropriate (i.e., sexual) relationships between teachers and students. But banning social media contact isn't going to achieve much on this front. After all, adult school district employees don't need technology to victimize an unsuspecting student or pursue an illicit consensual relationship; the truth is they've been doing this for years without the benefit of social networks, email, and text messages, and unfortunately they will almost certainly continue to do so -- again, with or without these digital platforms.

Ironically, school board members in Barrington, IL freely admit that the district hasn't experienced any negative incidents involving digital communication between teachers and students.

6 comments about "School District Bans Online Contact Between Students, Teachers".
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  1. Jenny B from Natural Write, November 23, 2010 at 4:36 p.m.

    "I can tell you what I'd do: I'd ban it!" Thanks for giving me a chuckle in an otherwise stark piece of news.

    Only when (if) the school systems ever start truly educating our kids will this insanity go away. We certainly already have plenty of fear and ignorance in the classroom...and is it me or does it seem to get worse every year?

    Thanks again!
    Jenny

  2. Steve Sarner from Tagged, November 23, 2010 at 4:55 p.m.

    I had to check more than once to make sure this was Media Post's Social Graf and not the Onion. After reading the last sentence - still not sure.

  3. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., November 23, 2010 at 5:43 p.m.

    While I agree with Erik's underlying sentiment, here, I think the problem these school board members are attempting to confront is real, serious, and far more complicated than the obviously-troubling but statistically no-doubt trivial matter of teacher-student sex.

    As elsewhere -- for example in the intersection between business and social media -- part of the problem is about keeping professional communications separate from private ones, and insuring that the former are auditable and compliant with institutional standards. Part of the problem is about sequestering the private and personal away from the business of schooling, which (as Erik suggests, but then dismisses) does indeed require that teachers maintain the gravitas attendant on their role, and also that students maintain a certain dignity as 'scholars' when engaged in learning.

    And part of it -- I suspect a very important part -- is about avoiding the problems that instant, substantially covert (or conversely, unnecessarily public), computer- and mobile-mediated communications seem to bring to human affairs ... from the 'ranting email sent in too much haste,' to the 'instant message misinterpreted,' to the 'inappropriately-long email exchange about a grade.' And of course, creepy friend requests from (or to) your math teacher.

    Business wrestles with this stuff every day -- the courts are perpetually full of cases. So it seems quite sensible for school districts to be concerned about all of it, particularly since the power-delta between mature educators and juvenile charges is written into the nature of the enterprise, placing special burdens of transparency and accountability on educational institutions. The only real reason to want to push for increased freedom (and inevitably more frequent) use of these media by teachers and students with each other is if someone can show that texting and personal email and Facebook assist in education -- which is an assertion I haven't seen made compellingly.

  4. Edward Gonzalez from 33 Degrees Convenience Connect, November 23, 2010 at 5:53 p.m.

    I agree with this school's ruling. At the end of the day the teacher needs to have their own life and the students theirs. Email should be limited to school accounts. And while inappropriate situations may occur unfortunately with a predator, the last thing the school should do is facilitate the process by making it easier for teachers and faculty to interact with a student in a somewhat private environment. The same way it would be inappropriate for a teacher and student to spend time alone in a private setting, I believe it is equally inappropriate in a 'virtual' private setting (IM, text, and personal emails). The classroom is the place for this teacher/student communication to occur. Any communication after that point should be relayed through the parents.

  5. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, November 23, 2010 at 8:56 p.m.

    I'm a teacher. I encourage students to use social media and conduct research about such media. And I create course-specific Twitter accounts for them to follow, especially a course I teach on social media itself. A course-specific Twitter site provides a backchannel for the course, even during a live class. But sharing my private Twitter account? No, that's too personal. It crosses the line. I don't want to be followed by current students.

    I also draw the line at friending current students on Facebook. It's not appropriate. Maybe with former students, sparingly, but not current students. Why? Something called the "creepy treehouse effect" -- students don't want to be friends with teachers, for the same reason kids don't want adults climbing into their backyard fort or treehouse. It's creepy. It violates boundaries. And it's coercive if students perceive they have no choice, which is the case when people are in a situation where one has power over another, through fear of getting a bad grade.

    To learn more, Google "creepy treehouse effect" to see that I am not just making this up.

  6. Catherine Lockey from oz 2 designs LLC, November 26, 2010 at 3:22 p.m.

    Erik,
    I think the district made the right decision and I think all districts should follow. When my daughter was 15 she attended the local public school. She participated in color guard after hours which was run by a man. I had access to my daughter's fb account and noticed she was recently connected to colorguard instructor's account, - so I took a look and found out his FB he was actively recruiting boys to be part of the gay lifestyle. There were many pictures of men and male statues and lots of talk about joining the gay lifestyle. His sexuality should have been NONE of my daughter's business. I reported this to the school administration and they seemed very confused - many of them unsure how to even access this guy's FB. Later, when my daughter was a senior and the instructor had moved on to another school, my daughter told me he had been having a long term sexual relationship with one of the 17 year old boys in the troup. Just one story from a rural PA school district. I'm sure there are many more.

    This isn't about one bad apple spoiling the bunch. Predators are drawn to any activity which involves children. If a school district is going to allow school officials/employees/volunteers to engage in social with children then the school should be allowed to monitor them anytime.

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