Social Networking Policy Holds School District Staff to 'Higher Standard'
New policy advises employees that information 'deemed inappropriate' could be cause for firing non-tenured staff or certifying tenure charges
School district staff members will have to be more mindful of what they post on Facebook after the Board of Education approved the first reading of a social networking policy.
The policy, which was introduced at Tuesday’s school board meeting, advises employees that communications, publications, photographs or other information that is “deemed inappropriate” by the board could be cause for firing non-tenured staff or certifying tenure charges.
“While the board respects the right of staff members to use social networking sites, staff members should recognize they are held to a higher standard than the general public with regard to standards of conduct and ethics,” the policy states.
The policy was not the result of an existing problem in the school district but simply a matter of staying current, board President Eric Schubiger said. It is meant to be a guiding "framework" for the district.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s an issue in our district,” he said. “It’s 2013, and social media is just part of our society. We’re always updating policies to be in place so we know how to deal with it if it should become an issue at some point.”
Having a policy in place will protect the district as well as the employees, he said.
“Our policy is not intended to control in any way any of our employees lives or get involved with their personal affairs,” he said. “The intention of the policy is to provide a framework and to illustrate that we view our public employees as extremely important and need to be held to a higher standard than most.”
That “higher standard” is key to the policy.
“It’s in our system. They’re employees and they have to comply with standards of appropriate employee behavior,” school board attorney Arthur Stein said.
Numerous decisions have been made upholding that school district staff is held to a higher standard as “role models,” he said.
The policy disallows employees from using social media during working hours but they are also held to that “higher standard” when they leave school for the day, he said.
“You still can’t do anything that’s going to have a negative impact on their role model requirement,” Stein said.
A recent New York Times article noted multiple cases within the private sector in which the decision to terminate an employee over a post on a social networking platform was overruled.
According to the article, labor regulators have declared some restrictions illegal, stating that workers have the right to discuss work conditions freely and without fear of retribution whether at the office or on Facebook.
Private sector employees are not necessarily held to that same “higher standard,” Stein said.
Several years ago, there was a case in which a teacher emailed negative comments about a student with racial overtones, Stein said. The tenured teacher was dismissed because she violated the responsibility of a “role model performance,” he said.
Public vs. Private
When asked if a photograph posted on Facebook displaying a teacher in a bar setting might be cause for dismissal, Stein did not specifically say.
“Conduct outside that would be inconsistent with the responsibility to serve as a role model leaves a staff member exposed to discipline because they’re violating a standard,” he said.
“If a teacher wants to go into a bar and do whatever’s done at a bar, that’s one thing but when you allow yourself to be on the Internet which is now going to be accessed by students, other staff and members of the community in general, that’s an entirely different situation,” he said.
Public platforms versus private play a role, he said. Even though an incident may have happened in private, if it’s broadcasted on the web, it’s now public.
A Facebook page that is made private could be a “mitigating consideration,” he said.
“If it’s private, then only people who are your friends can gain access,” he said.
But even if the page is set to private, making racist comments or threatening to violently overthrow the government could be cause for discipline, he said.
“Even though it’s done in the so-called private, well, it’s not really private because it’s being broadcasted to other people,” he said. “It’s still a public communication.”
Recently, the Union Township school board filed tenure charges based on the “unbecoming conduct” of a teacher who made anti-gay comments on Facebook, according to a Star-Ledger story. The longtime teacher was critical of a Union High School display marking Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender History month.
“You’re entitled to your private opinions, if they’re private. As soon as they go public and it has a negative impact on the students you're serving as a role model, then that’s subject to criticism and discipline,” Stein said.
On a webpage outlining “Social Networking Nightmares, ” the National Education Association (NEA) explains that teacher free speech rights are “fairly limited,” only permitting speaking out if it’s on a matter of public concern and does not disrupt the school.
According to the NEA, the rule of thumb is if a teacher was to show their Facebook page to their mother, who in turn had concerns or problems, then that teacher does as well.
Code of Conduct
School district employees should "exercise care and good judgement" by adhering to the following guidelines in the policy. School staff members:
- Should not make statements that would violate any of the district's policies, including its policies concerning discrimination or harassment;
- Must uphold the district's value of respect for the individual and avoid making defamatory statements about the school district, employees, pupils, or their families;
- May not disclose any confidential information about the school district or confidential information obtained during the course of his/her employment, about any individual(s) or organization, including pupils and/or the families;
- Shall not use social networking sites to post any materials of a sexually graphic nature;
- Shall not use social networking sites to post any materials which promote violence;
- Shall not use social networking sites which would be detrimental to the mission and function of the district;
- Are prohibited from using their school district title as well as adding references to the district in any correspondence including, but not limited to, emails, postings, blogs, and social networking sites unless the communication is of an official nature and is serving the mission of the district. This prohibition also includes signature lines and personal email accounts;
- Shall not post updates to their status on any social networking sites during normal working hours including posting of statements or comments on the social networking sites of others during school time unless it involves a school project. Employees must seek approval from the Superintendent of Schools for such use; and
- Shall not post or publish any information the Commissioner of Education would deem to be inappropriate conduct by a school staff member.
Lacey’s policy also pertains to email, text messaging and other methods of communication for public display or publication.
Although the policy does not specifically mention that “friending” a student could be considered inappropriate conduct, it could be, Schubiger said.
“I think the language in there is general enough that we cover specific things that might not be mentioned. A good policy is more of a framework than line by line, item by item,” he said.
“I have confidence in our staff,” he continued. “I think, at this point in time, most people realize what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate. They should know.”
The district will not be closely monitoring employees use of social media with the intention of enforcement and punitive action, Schubiger said.
“We’re not in any way pretending to be the social media police,” he said. “By no means are we going to be out there looking for infractions of policy.”
In a Lacey Patch Facebook discussion, readers both supported and opposed the policy.
“Teachers are people, entitled to their own freedom of expression,” Greg Janes said.
“Other companies check people’s social networks before hiring and if kids in school aren’t allowed to say certain things without consequences, why should the teachers be allowed,” Stephanie Rose said.
What do you think? Cast your vote in our poll and share your thoughts in the comments section.
For a copy of the policy, see the attached PDF. A second reading will be done at the next school board meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 19 at 7:30 p.m.