Social media a ‘double-edged sword’ for schools

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In a whirlwind world of tweets, emails, text messages and friend requests, school district administrators aim to facilitate learning in an Internet-oriented world.

Since the rise of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, schools have had to work and rework their Internet and computer use policies.

Though the exact policies vary by district, the message remains the same: computers, phones and similar devices should be used only as learning tools during school hours.

Dupo School Superintendent Stephen Smith said social media has been both a blessing and a curse for school districts.

“From an educational standpoint, (social media) is kind of a double-edged sword,” Smith said.

He pointed out the positives to social media, including safety applications that can notify parents.

“We can’t police the students outside of the school,” he said. “When it becomes a disruption in the educational process and it spills over into the school environment, then we certainly get involved.”

Smith said his school district “highly discourages” teachers and coaches from being friends with students on Facebook.

He said the district has been fortunate because they have not had a lot of issues with social media incidents affecting schooling.

Waterloo has a PRESS Plus full maintenance policy updating service from the Illinois Association of School Boards that keeps the district up-to-date on changes in law, regulations and local conditions regarding social media and technology.

“We adopt the practices pretty much word-for-word,” Waterloo School Superintendent Brian Charron said. “Students can’t use their handheld devices for personal reasons during school.”

He said when he was principal at Waterloo High School, he’d hear students come to school discussing what had been said about them online.

“If there is any direct threat that something could happen at school, then we discipline the student according to school rules,” Charron said.

Situations like this have often been sad and difficult to deal with, Charron said.

“There’s too much of it that goes on,” he said. “We offer counseling to students who are going through difficult times about things that’ve been said on social media, but it’s not a black and white issue.”

Waterloo blocks social media sites like Facebook and Twitter on their network to ensure students are not accessing it during the school day.

“We take it very seriously,” Charron said. “We investigate all claims of harassment or bullying, and often we uncover more information than we feel we’re able to address. Then we notify the student, parents and the police department if it’s criminal in nature.”

Charron and the administration “strongly discourage” any personal relationships between students and teachers over social media.

“Social media and cell phones are here. We can’t pretend like they’re not, especially when we’re using them for legitimate educational resources,” Charron said.

Columbia has an acceptable use policy that is signed by all students and teachers at the beginning of the school year.

“We do not have a specific social media policy,” Columbia School Superintendent Dr. Gina Segobiano said. “The policy covers acceptable use from all devices.”

Under the usage and conduct code, all district employees who use personal technology and social media are expected to adhere to the high standards for appropriate school relationships required by the policy, regardless of the ever-changing social media and personal technology platforms available.

The policy also outlines acceptable use, privileges, unacceptable use, security, network etiquette and many other aspects of technology use in the school district.

Valmeyer also uses IASB policies to regulate how they handle social media and technology.

“The No. 1 reason why students are successful in class is due to the rapport that is established between the student and the teacher,” Valmeyer School Superintendent Eric Frankford said.

He said sometimes when a student becomes close and trusting with a teacher or coach, that line between an educational relationship and personal relationship can be crossed.

“Unfortunately, those are the stories that make headlines across the country,” he said. “You have to be careful in taking a broad brush across these policies.”

At Valmeyer, Frankford said if something would be considered inappropriate in the classroom, it would also be considered inappropriate on social media.

“The rules don’t change just because you’re online,” he said. “To have a separate set of rules for online… I don’t know if that’s any different from in person.”

Frankford said students can feel more “empowered” because they can have a certain kind of anonymity online.

“That can be good and bad,” he said. “When an act on social media disrupts school, then it becomes our issue.”

Frankford said there have been some Mondays where “the pot has been stirred,” and the school administration has to assess the situation.

“It’s a judgment call on when you get involved on something that happened outside of school,” he said. “Whether it was online or some house party that occurred, it’s a call we have to make on whether or not it disrupts the educational process.”

Gibault, on the other hand, does things a little differently since it’s a private school.

Principal Russ Hart said the school’s policy is that if something is inappropriate in person, it’s inappropriate online.

“We don’t have a policy that says teachers can’t be friends with their students on Facebook, but we tell them it would be an incredibly stupid position to be in,” Hart said. “The faculty is good about that.”

Gibault has an official Twitter account that Hart uses and has also allowed a couple of seniors to run in the past.

“We had a discussion on what was appropriate and what’s not appropriate,” he said. “They knew they had to be careful about how they interact and what they posted.”

Hart said there is zero chance that school districts can identify every social aspect to restrict teachers on.

“When Facebook first came out, it was the devil,” Hart said. “Parents hated it. I told them there’s nothing wrong with the site – it’s how you use it.”

When it comes to cyberbullying, however, the Gibault administration can and will step in when they find out about it.

He noted that social media is never a black and white situation, but instead is usually some shade of grey.

“If you do anything that doesn’t represent Catholic values, you will be held responsible,” Hart said.

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