Social Media in the Classroom: The Digital Safety Debate (Part 1 of 3)

This three part series tackles the question: How do teachers and administrators navigate the litigious, educational and social issues that new media brings to the classroom?

This first installment focuses on what schools don’t do that gets them into legal trouble and what they can do to keep out of it.
(Read Part 2 here)

If I may take great liberty with a famous Rudyard Kipling quote:

"Teachers are teachers, and students are students, and neither the twain shall meet... outside of the classroom... ever."

Or, at least that was true before the Internet came along with its countless forums, file-sharing sites and social networking platforms that appeal to everyone and, literally, her grandmother.

Not surprisingly, the reasons why many educators celebrate social media—for its accessibility, convenience, and strength as an information and communication tool—are the same reasons that can sweep them up in a swirling cauldron of controversy. Such a widely used, open forum too often places public scrutiny on interpersonal exchanges—especially when they occur between a minor and an adult.

And when you mix in truly preventable situations that arise from teachers digitally engaging with students or implementing new media curriculum that requires their pupils participate in online activities... well, that’s a tangled and litigiously embroiled ball of yarn you have there.

Looking at it legally

The legal community warns that educators who engage in off-campus digital communication with students, via the Web or wireless platform, make themselves and schools highly vulnerable to civil lawsuits.

For instance, a teacher may discover that his or her student "friend" on Facebook is engaged in an illegal activity, like underage drinking. Many questions follow: Is the teacher obligated to report the activity? Can an angry parent sue because the teacher didn’t report the incident and intervene? Are the teacher and school liable if the incident occurred off campus? The answers, of course, fluctuate based on a number of variables affecting each case.

Interestingly, there are some educators who naively ignore the risks in developing online friendships. Their arguments range from "I should meet my students where they are" to "this is an extra line of support that makes pupils feel safe."

But they’re failing to weigh the consequences that can evolve from sharing and accessing private data through sites like Facebook, YouTube, and personal blogs.

Only to further complicate the situation, if this off-campus social networking takes a turn for the worse, schools are rarely, if ever, prepared to handle the situation. And enough lawsuits have cropped up now that administrators can no longer say, "It didn’t happen on schools grounds, so it’s not our problem."

Then there’s the issue of on-campus social media usage. When Departments of Education, administrators, and teachers haven’t created the appropriate technology policies and curriculum around online activity, lawsuits are bound to happen. Even if students are participating in a cyber project closely supervised by their teacher, incidents still occur when technology standards haven’t been adopted by the instructor and passed down.

California-based Attorney Penny Glover, who works with schools to keep policies and practices in line with current laws and changing technologies, says, "When it comes to online communications, it seems that many schools are operating under the assumption that rules and expectations about certain online behaviors are already ingrained in our students’ minds and that they do not need to be stated directly."

Although our young digital natives have never known a world without the Internet, Glover is "...not convinced, however, that all students fully understand the basic rules and expectations associated with online communication when they continue to post things online like, ’That math test was bad. I’m going to kill my math teacher.’"

Preventative measures

Bills and laws are in a constant state of flux, trying to keep up with the emergence of school-based technology issues. In the meantime, schools should take steps to own the cyber incident process-from policy creation to incident follow up—protecting themselves while federal and state governments get a handle on assigning legal responsibility.

It all comes down to administrators and educators making it a priority to find out where their schools lie on the digital citizenship spectrum. Through self-assessment, they can clearly recognize the areas that need development—detection, prevention, incident management and response—and then create policies and procedures that keep everyone safe and litigious risk down.

Most importantly, schools need to preemptively prepare themselves for all cyber incidents, whether they’re on campus or off. (Something as seemingly simple as knowing the right investigative questions to ask can successfully protect the school from liability.) The amount of time, money and energy spent on a resolution is considerably lessened when systems are set in place to manage events before they occur.

Join me for the second installment of this three-part series as I explore social media in the classroom—is it teacher’s pet or troublemaker?

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