Legal Ramifications of Educators Using Social Media

Way back when social media was new, teachers were routinely warned to not use social media at all. The NEA and the OEA came out with horror stories about teachers who lost their jobs over unwise use of MySpace and Facebook, and both LCS administration and the LEA cautioned teachers that use of social media was inappropriate for teachers.

Now, the NEA has a Facebook page and a Twitter account and the organization gives hints for state and local organizations to use social media effectively. The tide has turned.

The truth about teachers and social media is much more complex than either of those facts indicate. Teachers have used social media in ways that are obviously, unarguably wrong–and there are court cases proving that. There are also many, many teachers who use sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pintrest in ways that enhance their professional and personal lives.

Perhaps the most important point to remember if you use social media (or communication via technology in general) is this:

School administrators have customarily had the ability to
regulate teacher conduct, even conduct that occurs outside
the classroom (Bathon & Brady, 2010). Likewise, the majority
of state teaching licenses incorporate moral codes to
which teachers must adhere. Often teacher codes of conduct
prohibit “behavior that would otherwise be unbecoming of a
teacher” and/or “engaging in conduct that would discredit
the teaching profession.” Most state education codes permit
a teacher’s dismissal for “immorality,” or “moral turpitude,”even if the incident 
occurs in the teacher’s personal time 
(from "Facebook Fired," link provided below)

In other words, what teachers do in their free time can lead to professional issues–and that includes what teachers do online. Because “moral turpitude” and conduct  unbecoming of a teacher are legally upheld as reasons to terminate contracts (and even lose teaching certificates), posting anything online that could be taken as “inappropriate” could lead to unpleasant consequences. However, the court cases are divided on how that’s defined. There’s no one simple guideline that fits all locations, all contexts. In fact, even something as simple as “don’t be online friends with students or parents” gets complicated if you live in the area where you teach or your own children attend the district you teach in. Considering how many sports teams, churches, and social groups use Facebook to communicate, for some people it’s not realistic to completely separate personal and professional life.

Also, the State of Ohio Code of Professional Conduct for Educators says the following:

Conduct unbecoming includes, but is not limited to, the following actions: a)Willfully or knowingly violating any student confidentiality required by federal or state laws, including publishing, providing access to, or altering confidential student information on district or public Web sites such as grades, personal information, photographs, disciplinary actions, or individual educational plans (IEPs) without parental consent or consent of students 18 years of age and older. b) Using confidential student, family, or school-related information in a non-professional way (e.g., gossip, malicious talk or disparagement).

In other words, if you want to post pictures of your students–even if the pictures are of fun events or in a positive context like a student getting an award–have the parents sign a note giving you permission to post it. Even though the district has the parents sign something similar as part of registration, for your protection, you should have parents’ permission. Furthermore, unless the parent specifically approves it, you definitely should not include the student’s name.

Being morally upright online isn’t the only issue to consider. Here are three other concerns that could impact teachers who use social media:

  1. Saying anything that is even potentially critical of your school, administration, or students—even by implication–can lead to losing your job. Beware of venting or frustrated comments as well as mentioning “funny” things that happened in class. Your idea of “funny” could be someone else’s idea of bullying.
  2. Setting up an account using a fake name and not identifying yourself as a teacher does not protect you. There’s a court case where an artist lost his teaching job because of art videos that were deemed inappropriate even though he was not acting in his capacity as a teacher and was not using his real name.
  3. Going on social media during school hours is a bad idea. It can be viewed as a violation of board policy, which could lead to disciplinary measures.

Social media is embedded in modern society, and we’re long past the stage where teachers should be warned to stay away from using it. In fact, teachers need to be in the forefront of people who use technology well and wisely–future generations depend on it!

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