The reach of social media into nearly every facet of our lives, including those of our children, shows no sign of slowing. While the potential of these resources to enhance the educational experience can be considerable, it is equally important for safeguards to be put in place to protect against the pitfalls they simultaneously present. As a result, school districts, colleges and other educational entities are under increased pressure to craft social media policies and guidelines that balance the interests and rights of all stakeholders while keeping vulnerable parties out of harm’s way. With significant experience advising school administrators, employees, parents and students at all levels, the attorneys at Murray-Lobb possess the knowledge required to create and refine effective social media policies for use in the educational arena.
Widespread Need for Guidance
Considering how pervasive social media tools are in our everyday lives, many would be surprised to learn just how many school districts, colleges, universities and other educational bodies have yet to put formal policies or guidelines in place to govern their use. While official board or institution-wide policies may not be critical in every educational context, it makes good sense for school administrators to give serious consideration to putting some concrete rules into writing. Whether promulgated in a handbook or through an amendment or addition to existing policy, a clear articulation of what is acceptable and what is not in the realm of social media usage helps protect the rights, privacy and safety of all involved.
Many school districts have put in place draconian penalties for students who are caught using their cell phones at “unauthorized” times, essentially during class instruction. The administrators typically collect the cell phone and will only release it to a parent or guardian and require the payment of a $15 or more fine. The time has come for school districts and other educational bodies to recognize the usefulness of such social media tools as educational tools and to craft more flexible policies.
Key Issues in School Social Media Policy Drafting
To ensure that a school district’s social media policy achieves the desired effect, it is wise to address several key issues that are almost certain to arise in the educational setting. While it is likely impossible to design a policy able to anticipate every problem that may emerge, having specific guidelines in place will make handling misconduct an easier and more straightforward task when the time comes.
First, it is necessary to determine what, if any, types of relationships district employees will be permitted to have with students or their families via their personal social media accounts. Some districts have placed no restrictions on such relationships, whereas others have attempted to issue blanket prohibitions on such communication. The latter option, however, may give rise to challenges of a constitutional nature, with opponents citing unfair infringement on free speech rights. Therefore, a district may choose to focus its guidance on strongly discouraging excessive (or any) personal interaction between students and teachers on social media rather than banning it or attempting to police and punish it when it becomes problematic. Personal emailing or texting between school district employees and students has exacerbated the number of incidents of inappropriate relationships between such employees and students because of the ease of conducting such relationships clandestinely. Many school district employees do not realize that even if those relationships are consensual, the school district employee may still be charged with a felony and lose his or her educational career entirely.
Personal use (or misuse) of social media by school employees is just one of the ways in which a lack of clear guidelines can prove troublesome for administrators. The use of social media for legitimate, educational purposes can jeopardize districts in often unanticipated ways, including placing them at risk of intellectual property infringement lawsuits. Trademark and copyright litigation is a legitimate concern when educators make unauthorized use of protected instructional or other content via social media accounts. Therefore, it is vital that employees are thoroughly informed and trained about the risks in order to prevent costly and cumbersome legal trouble down the road.
An especially prickly area of social media policy in the educational context is the issue of when employees or students can be sanctioned for conduct on personal social media accounts undertaken outside of work or school hours. To develop an effective approach to handling such circumstances, it is necessary for administrators and board members to carefully consider the First Amendment rights of district employees and students and to provide training opportunities and concrete factual examples to help everyone engage in responsible social media use that does not jeopardize the safety or integrity of the organization and those it serves.
Maintenance of district or entity-wide social media accounts can also pose difficulties if not handled pursuant to formalized, established policies. For example, a public educational body with its own Twitter or Facebook page may be tempted to delete unflattering or disparaging comments made by a member of the public on those sites. However, its ability to unilaterally delete or disguise such remarks can be in question if no guidelines have been issued or presented to those visiting the site. As is the case in all of the scenarios described above, thorough legal review of proposed policies and the rationales behind them is essential to success.
Experienced Counsel for Texas Educators and Administrators
As the start of the new school year rapidly approaches, school districts, colleges and other governmental bodies are encouraged to undertake a comprehensive review of the manner in which they handle issues relating to social media use. The legal exposure that can result from ambiguous or nonexistent policies is significant, and securing the counsel of a seasoned education law attorney is essential. With broad experience serving the needs of Montgomery, Galveston and Harris County educators, administrators, parents and students, Murray-Lobb stands ready to provide the knowledgeable advice and practical solutions our clients deserve.