Schools' online policies spark debate

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
VERNON - posted Tue., Jan. 25, 2011
Teacher David Jedidian objected to the part of the policy that govern's teachers
Teacher David Jedidian objected to the part of the policy that govern's teachers' home computer use.

The Vernon Board of Education is pursuing how to keep students safe, as one member put it “in real space, and in cyberspace,” but questions remain as to what is enforceable, as well as what policies are legal.

At its meeting on Jan. 24, the board reviewed revised guidelines for its employees, regarding computer network usage. Board member Dave Kemp said the impetus for the changes is because the board has been taking a more serious look at how students and staff are relating to one another. Several board members have also taken part in recent seminars on the topic, he said.

Kemp said the employee policies dovetail with the guidelines for student online behavior, which the board had previously passed.

A main caveat is that teachers and staff may not “friend” students on social networking sites, such as Facebook.

The guidelines detail how some Facebook pages can be used for school clubs and activities. The rules state that teachers may set up group pages for the clubs, and that students may become members of the groups, but that students and teachers may not directly become “friends.”

The guidelines also state that parents, as well as administrators, must be able to monitor the pages.

Teachers are also advised to not discuss any Board of Education or school matters online, or to become friends with the parents or guardians of students.

Board member Paul Stansel questioned whether the policy would mean he would have to undo connections he has with some of the system’s teachers, even though he’s been longtime friends with them.

“There are several teachers in the system that I actually went to high school with,” Stansel said. “They are my friends on Facebook, and thus would have to un-friend me, because I have children in the system.”

Stansel said not friending the parents is “a step too far.”

Superintendent Dr. Mary Conway said the intent of the policy’s language was to discourage any special relationships being developed that a student might benefit from.

“I don’t think we should be in the business of legislating who our teachers should friend on Facebook,” Stansel said, adding that he also objected to the part of the policy that does not allow faculty to post or link to Board of Education materials.

“If I wanted to post a blog post that said ‘here is the Board of Education’s proposed budget for 2011,’ and I was a teacher in this school, that would violate this policy,” Stansel said, “but that’s public information. Why would you care that someone linked to that? All of the stuff on our website is public information.”

“I don’t see how that’s a bad thing or a problem,” he said, adding that if a staff member were to post a link and then criticize it, that would be a different matter, but also hard to enforce without getting into freedom of speech issues.

Teacher David Jedidian, who is also Rockville High School’s varsity football coach, called some of the policies' parameters “troublesome.”

Although he agreed with the parameters set for computers and phones that are Board of Ed. property, he said that certain items don’t belong as part of the Board’s policy, as they attempt to govern the private use of social networking sites by teachers on their own personal computers.

“The policy is overly intrusive,” Jedidian said, “and it’s too expansive. It impinges on the rights of all the teachers in the district.”

Jedidian said he agrees that teachers should not be “friending” students, but added “if you start legislating and dictating what we can do in our homes, where does it end?”

Kemp, referring to studies provided to the Board of Ed., defended the policy changes, stating that other school districts have passed similar policies, and that there is also a large amount of case law available that refers to what is permissible by students and school staff on social media websites.

Kemp said the argument over free speech, although it may be valid, has not been shown, in case law, to protect teachers, especially in cases where administrators were able to show that a harmful effect on students has resulted.

Kemp added that the board is not trying to be punitive, but to make a policy statement that protects teachers, as well as students, by citing other cases in other towns where teachers have posted online materials that were inappropriate, and subsequently lost their jobs, despite asserting freedom of speech rights.

“We’re trying to step up and say ‘let’s be very careful out there in what we may be doing out there in the cyber world, because it could cost someone dearly,” Kemp said.

The Board of Ed. tabled action on the policies until some of the language could be further clarified.

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