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Concord School District to develop social media policy

Is it appropriate for teachers to set up Facebook pages for students to communicate about class?

Does the school district have a responsibility to step in if kids are being bullied online outside of school hours?

Should schools operate their own Facebook and Twitter accounts to communicate with the public?

These are just a few of the questions administrators at the Concord School District hope to address as they begin drafting a social media policy.

“Now we’re collecting the background, figuring out what’s the position we want to be in, what do we want to propose,” said Superintendent Chris Rath. “On the continuum from very restrictive to very open, where do we want to be?”

The push to create a specific set of guidelines was partially driven by a number of social-media related incidents that occurred earlier this month. Rath declined to discuss specifics, but said one had to do with how teachers communicate with students and another with Facebook bullying that happened outside of school hours. When Rath went to a national superintendents conference in Los Angeles last week, she learned Concord isn’t the only district grappling with how to address these issues.

Among the topics this new policy will address are how students communicate with each other and with their teachers and how the district can leverage social media as an educational tool, both in the classroom and with the public. Right now, a small committee of administrators is researching issues and solutions, including relevant court cases. The group will also solicit feedback from parents, students and faculty. Rath hopes to have a policy drafted by the end of the school year. The school board, which holds public hearings on new policies, and its communications committee will ultimately approve the policy.

The district currently operates under the Acceptable Internet Use policy, which provides guidelines for students, staff and administrators. Under the policy, school district members cannot use the district’s computers or network for noneducational purposes, including harassment or bullying and accessing adult-oriented websites, among many other things. The policy states there is no expectation of privacy for materials stored or accessed on the network, and outlines policies for investigating abuses.

But as more social media tools emerge, from traditional email to Facebook, Twitter, and photo-sharing applications such as Instagram and SnapChat, a need for more specific policies has emerged.

Issues to address

Bullying or posting mean comments online is the most common way for students to abuse social media sites. At the beginning of the school year, for example, a group of high school students started an anonymous Twitter account where they would post disparaging comments about a different student each day.

Most students are using the internet and their cell phones appropriately, said Tom Crumrime, an assistant principal at the high school and member of the committee drafting the policy. It’s the few who aren’t who cause major issues.

Students “get on Twitter, and mean things are said. You’ve got the 140-character limit so it’s always out of context,” he said.

Tom Sica, principal at Rundlett Middle School, agreed that the instant nature of social media can cause quick reactions and less time for students to cool down.

“Rumor and gossip can go on hyperspeed given some of the tools on the internet and cell phones and whatnot, and there’s a real danger to that,” he said.

But punishing kids for online bullying is in murky territory when it happens after school and off campus. A number of court cases have centered on what responsibility a district has to intervene in those situations, Rath said. The accepted standard right now is that if outside actions have a substantial effect within the school, the district can take action, she said.

Monitoring how staff members use their personal accounts, and deciding whether they can create school-related accounts to reach students, are two other major issues. Personal accounts unaffiliated with the school can become areas of concern. A few years ago, the district fired a teaching assistant because students found pictures on her Facebook page of her holding alcohol, Rath said. Beyond social media, a policy needs to address when it’s appropriate for teachers and students to email each other outside of class. An 11 p.m. email exchange, even if it’s school-related, might not pass the test, Rath said.

Student privacy raises another concern. Beaver Meadow Elementary School recently created a YouTube channel to display student projects. The site is subscription-based, giving the school power to control who has access, but even putting student-related content online can raise privacy issues.

Beyond establishing rules, educating students on how to use social media and protect their privacy is key. Under the Child Internet Protection Act, districts must educate students on internet use and safety in order to receive federal money for communications costs. Students need to understand online information isn’t always erasable.

“It’s still dangerous out there, and you never know who has access to your personal information or who has an ill intent,” said John Forrest, principal at Beaver Meadow. “We have to protect the children, and also we have to develop a policy that’s based in the foundation that once something is out there you can’t ever get it back.”

An educational tool

An effective social media policy will go beyond setting limits, and it will also address how teachers and administrators can leverage social media as both teaching and communication tools, Rath said.

“Early on, districts said teachers may not have Facebook pages with students, may not go on or start one, and there was a huge reaction to that, saying ‘Wait a minute, these things are tools that we can use to educate, that’s not a very progressive way of thinking,’ ” Rath said. “So what’s happened most recently is we’re thinking kids have these, it’s part of our life, (we) need a policy that enables people to use the tools for education purposes.”

Meagan Olive, a junior at Concord High, said she already uses Facebook to communicate with others about class work. She’s in a group for her Advanced Placement chemistry class. Organizing through Facebook is an effective way to work on group projects outside of class, she said.

“It’s kind of necessary because a lot of teachers, especially in junior year, give you group work but not that much time in class to do it, so you have to find a way to do it outside of school.”

Smita Boesch-Dining, another junior, said she uses Facebook in a similar way.

“I mostly just use Facebook to communicate with people who are in my classes,” she said. “We have group chats, if we miss something we can message one another and get help.”

Both students said Facebook could be another effective way for teachers to disseminate information about class.

Learning about and evaluating how these tools can help students is part of the district’s process for developing a policy.

“I can’t speak for the district yet, but I think the sense of this district is we’d rather educate than restrict,” Rath said.

Another issue to address is whether the district, principals and teachers should operate Twitter and Facebook accounts to share information with the community. Forrest said Twitter could be a great means of direct communication, but keeping a Twitter account also requires time and attention. If parents come to rely on it for news, and he forgot to post something, they could be out of the loop. Right now, he and the other principals use an alert now system to blast out emails with information.

“I would feel awful if I missed something,” he said.

Since technology will only keep evolving, the ultimate policy must focus on goals, not specific devices, Rath said. Determining what role social media and technology should and shouldn’t play in education and communication, rather than what can and can’t be done on specific devices and sites, will provide a stronger and longer lasting policy.

“It’s really a world that’s changing rapidly,” Rath said.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or
kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)

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