Can a School Respond to Off-Campus Cyberbullying?

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on March 19, 2012

school_Flickr-LoozrboyWe discuss the legal issues associated with schools responding to cyberbullying incidents quite often in this space. You can find many blog posts which attempt to clarify the variety of issues raised (see here and here) and we have a summary fact sheet that is available here.  Of course the law, and our understanding of it, is constantly evolving.  So I thought I would post a (relatively) simplified update with the lineage of case law that demonstrates that schools do in fact have the authority to apply reasonable discipline to students who participate in cyberbullying while away from school.  Below I provide a brief one or two sentence summary of the ruling, but I encourage everyone to read the actual facts of each case so that you can better understand the unique contexts of each incident.

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969): Students have free-speech rights.  “A prohibition against expression of opinion, without any evidence that the rule is necessary to avoid substantial interference with school discipline or the rights of others, is not permissible under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.” Students have constitutional rights under the First Amendment. Those rights, however, do not grant students the right to substantially interfere with school discipline or the “the rights of other students to be secure and to be let alone.”

Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser (1986): Student’s free-speech rights are limited while at school. “[T]he constitutional rights of students in public school are not automatically coextensive with the rights of adults in other settings….”  The Supreme Court ruled that there is a substantive difference between a non-disruptive expression (such as in Tinker) and “speech or action that intrudes upon the work of the schools or the rights of other students.”

Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999): If a school knows about harassment or other hurtful actions against students and doesn’t respond effectively to prevent it from continuing, they may be held responsible.  “…the common law, too, has put schools on notice that they may be held responsible under state law for their failure to protect students from the tortious acts of third parties.”

J.S. v. Bethlehem Area School District (2000): Schools can discipline students for their off-campus electronic speech (student created a threatening web page about his algebra teacher).  “…school officials are justified in taking very seriously threats against faculty and other students.”

Wisniewski v. Board of Education of the Weedsport Central School District (2007): “…it was reasonably foreseeable that Wisniewski’s communication would cause a disruption within the school environment…. The fact that Aaron’s creation and transmission of the IM icon occurred away from school property does not necessarily insulate him from school discipline. We have recognized that off-campus conduct can create a foreseeable risk of substantial disruption within a school…”

Barr v. Lafon (2007): Schools do not need to wait for a substantial disruption to occur at school before taking action.  The U.S. Court of Appeals (6th Circuit) ruled that “…appellate court decisions considering school bans on expression have focused on whether the banned conduct would likely trigger disturbances such as those experienced in the past” and pointed to the fact that the high school had even positioned law enforcement officials on campus in previous years to maintain order in an environment of racial hostility and violence. Citing Lowery v. Euverard (2007), the court stated: “…under the Tinker standard a school does not need to wait until a disruption has actually occurred before regulating student speech.”

Kowalski v. Berkeley County Schools (2011): Schools can discipline students for their online speech, consistent with Tinker. “Kowalski used the Internet to orchestrate a targeted attack on a classmate, and did so in a manner that was sufficiently connected to the school environment as to implicate the School District’s recognized authority to discipline speech which “materially and substantially interfere[es] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school and collid[es] with the rights of others.”

There are several examples of cases where students were successful in their lawsuits against schools when the student was disciplined for off-campus behavior (see: Klein v. Smith, 1986; Emmett v. Kent School District No. 415, 2000; Layshock v. Hermitage School District, 2010; Blue Mountain School District v. J.S., 2010. In all of these cases, however, the school was incapable of demonstrating that the off-campus behavior or speech resulted in, or had a likelihood of resulting in, a substantial disruption at school. In fact, when the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the schools in Layshock and Blue Mountain, Judge Kent Jordan stated: “The issue is whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker, can be applicable to off-campus speech. I believe it can, and no ruling coming out today is to the contrary.”

Finally, it is important to point out that I correspond with many of the best and brightest legal minds in the United States and many of them disagree about these issues!  We are at a challenging and uncertain time (to say the least) when it comes to education in this country, and the legal ambiguity concerning a school’s authority to respond to off-campus behaviors is just one more example.  But the reality, in my view, is that there is no uncertainty about this issue.  Schools simply do have the authority to reasonably discipline students for any behavior (whether at school or away from school) if such behavior results in, or has a high likelihood of resulting in, a substantial or material disruption at school or if the behavior infringes on the rights of other students. So the short answer to the question posed in the title of this blog post is: YES!

But I will conclude my thoughts by asking all of you who read this to let us know if you are aware of any cases where a school was found to be liable for damages for disciplining a student for their off campus behavior which resulted in a substantial disruption at school.  I am not aware of any such cases.  Part of the trouble here, I think, is that examples of cases like that have not reached a court and therefore we have not received reassurance in our interpretation of the law.  Most of the time schools get it right and they do not end up in court. Until more case law is established, we will continue to recommend that schools act in accordance with the cases discussed above.

Image courtesy of Loozrboy (Flickr – Creative Commons)

Third Circuit Court weighs in on conflicting cases involving off-campus online speech by students

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on June 16, 2011

As we have discussed several times on this blog in recent years, there are two cases that addressed issues with off-campus online speech by students that resulted in seemingly conflicting responses by the same court. They potentially have implications for how schools can respond to cyberbullying incidents, so are important to follow.

To refresh your memory, Layshock v. Hermitage School District involved Justin Layshock, the 17-year-old Hickory High School senior who in 2005 created a “nonthreatening, non‐obscene parody profile making fun of the school principal” from his grandmother’s home using her computer. The school suspended Layshock for 10 days, which was initially upheld in a 2006 hearing, but later overturned by the judge in the case, saying the school went too far. In February of 2010, a panel of judges from the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in and agreed. In this case it appeared the school failed to effectively argue that Layshock’s actions caused a substantial disruption at school – the standard that was established in the seminal Supreme Court case Tinker vs. Des Moines (1969). According to Tinker, school administrators can discipline students for off-campus behavior if it can be demonstrated that such behavior resulted in a “substantial and material disruption” of the school environment.

In the other case (Blue Mountain School District v. J.S.), a 14-year-old eighth-grade student from Blue Mountain Middle School also created a MySpace profile of the principal which included, among other things, an accusation that he was a “sex-obsessed pedophile.” This student was also suspended for 10 days for violating the school’s discipline code and for using the schools copyrighted material (the principal’s picture from the school’s web site) without permission. The lower court refused to grant the student a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction ruling that schools can in fact discipline students for lewd off-campus behavior, even if such behavior doesn’t cause a substantial disruption. Another, separate panel from the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court in an opinion that seemed inconsistent with the Layshock ruling.

To resolve these disparate views, the Third Circuit agreed to review the cases collectively (“en banc”) to offer a perspective. In short, there is nothing too surprising about the remarks of the majority opinions released on Monday. The court re-asserted that schools cannot punish students for off-campus behavior or speech without evidence of a substantial disruption at school (or a high likelihood that such a disruption will occur).

In the Layshock case, the school district conceded that the creation of the MySpace parody profile did not cause a disruption at school. So it is clearly outside the boundaries of formal school discipline. The court also listed several cases where schools were allowed to discipline students for the off-campus behavior (J.S. v. Bethlehem Area Sch. Dist., 807 A.2d 847 (Pa. 2002); Wisniewski v. Bd. of Educ. of Weedsport Cent. Sch. Dist., 494 F.3d 34 (2d Cir. 2007); and Doninger v. Niehoff, 527 F.3d 41 (2d Cir. 2008), noting that “each of those cases involved off campus expressive conduct that resulted in a substantial disruption of the school, and the courts allowed the schools to respond to the substantial disruption that the student’s out of school conduct caused.”

In the other case, the Bethlehem Area School District did initially attempt to argue that J.S.’s activities resulted in a significant disruption at school, though neither the District Court nor the Third Circuit Court of Appeals accepted that argument so they backed off. In the original hearing, the District Court supported the disciplinary actions of the school, not because there was evidence of a substantial disruption, but because the content of the off-campus speech was “vulgar, lewd, and potentially illegal.” This was consistent with Supreme Court decisions in Fraser (1986) and Morse (2007). In its review, however, the Third Circuit noted that in both of these cases, the speech was delivered at school (Fraser) or a school sponsored activity (Morse). As such, the vulgarity of the speech was irrelevant and therefore the singular issue is to consider is whether the off-campus speech resulted in a substantial disruption. Therefore, in a divided opinion (8-6) the Third Circuit overturned the District Court, concluding that: “…the school district violated J.S.’s First Amendment free speech rights when it suspended her for speech that caused no substantial disruption in school and that could not reasonably have led school officials to forecast substantial disruption in school.”

Judge Jordon noted in a concurring opinion, however, that: “The issue is whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker, can be applicable to off-campus speech. I believe it can, and no ruling coming out today is to the contrary.” So students can be punished for off-campus speech or behavior (consistent with Tinker’s disruption clause).

So where does this leave us. Well, the key issue to keep in mind, it seems, is whether a student’s off-campus speech or behavior results, or has a high likelihood of resulting in, a substantial disruption at school. We have little additional clarity regarding what that actually looks like, but we know a bit more about what it isn’t. Staff accessing a harassing profile at school does not constitute a substantial disruption. A student bringing a printed copy of a Web site to school at the request of staff does not cause a substantial disruption. A few students talking in class does not equal substantial disruption.

It also appears that vulgarities directed toward school officials from an off-campus location are not automatically subject to school discipline. Now, if that speech substantially and/or materially disrupts the learning at school, it may be fair game for sanction. It is interesting that free speech advocates are touting this as a victory for students, suggesting these opinions are evidence that there are no conditions under which schools can discipline students for their off-campus speech. This is clearly an incorrect interpretation of the facts. We have long known that students have free speech rights. We also know that those rights are constrained a bit while at school and where the speech substantially disrupts the school environment. That hasn’t changed.

It is important to also point out that both of these cases involved students who were targeting staff. I would be very interested to see if the opinions changed if all players involved were students. If a student creates a Facebook parody profile about another student, could the target’s ability to learn at school be substantially disrupted? It sure seems so. But it remains to be seen whether the higher courts would agree with this rationale.

I encourage you all to read the full versions of the opinions (over 100 pages in total). Layshock is available here and Blue Mountain is here. And feel free to weigh in with your thoughts.

Guidelines for Online Communication between Teachers and Students

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on January 25, 2011

The state of Virginia has recently proposed guidelines for public schools in order to prevent sexual (and other forms of) misconduct between educators and students. Justin and I have blogged about this issue here and here in the past – and it continues to be a topic of strong interest and controversy as we work with administrators across the nation.

 

First, I really like the fact that Virginia’s Board of Education has attempted to tackle the issue, as so many states and school districts are not being proactive enough to formally hash out this issue.  Seemingly, this was prompted by the fact that 120 of the 169 actions taken against educators’ licenses since 2000 had to do with some type of misconduct involving students.

 

Also important to mention is that at least 46 educators have been arrested due to this problem, with half of those cases involving problematic computer or cell phone communications. I don’t have the statistics yet, but it is possible that these trends are mirrored in other states across the nation, as I don’t think Virginia is alone in its struggle to address inappropriate interactions between school personnel and students.

 

First, let me bring your attention to their model policy for electronic communications with students:

 

• Teachers and other school board employees must restrict electronic communications with students to accounts, systems and platforms provided by the school division.

• Teachers and other employees may not use personal wireless communications devices to “text” students and are prohibited from interacting with students through online social-networking sites.

• Teachers and other school board employees must decline or disregard invitations from students to interact through texting and social-networking sites.

• Teachers and other school board employees may not knowingly engage in online gaming with students.

• School board policy on electronic communications with students also applies to teachers and other employees of virtual school programs and other vendors providing instructional services to students.

 

Overall, the state’s Department of Education states that communications should be transparent, accessible to supervisors (I don’t see how this differs from “transparency” – someone let me know…), and professional in tone.

 

They also specify guidelines for in-person communications with students:

 

• Conversations with students should focus on matters related to instruction and school activities.

• School board employees and volunteers should not initiate discussions about their private lives or the intimate details of the private lives of unrelated students.

• Conversation by school board employees and volunteers with students that could be interpreted as flirtatious, romantic or sexual is prohibited.

• The sharing of sexually explicit or obscene jokes and verbal “kidding” of a sexual nature between school board employees, volunteers and students is prohibited.

• Private, one-on-one conversations with students should take place within the potential view, but out of the earshot of other adults — such as in a classroom with the hallway door open. This policy also applies to conversations between volunteers and unrelated students.

• School board employees may not conduct an ongoing series of one-on-one meetings with a student without the knowledge of the principal and without written permission of a parent or guardian.

• The school board’s policy on in-person communications with students also applies to teachers and other employees of virtual school programs and other vendors providing instructional services to students.

 

Obviously, interacting via technology allows for personal thoughts, emotional content, and private feelings to be shared more readily than in person – and of course allows for one-on-one conversation outside of the purview of other adults, removing accountability and perhaps increasing notions of undetectability. The vast majority of educators will not abuse this – but some will. I feel that the work that VDOE has done in this area is pioneering, and I look forward to seeing what feedback is received to refine these guidelines before they are codified.

A Student Guide to Personal Publishing

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on August 31, 2010

Sameer and I recently wrote a concise “Student Guide to Personal Publishing” which was published by Jostens (the class ring and yearbook company).  They contacted us looking for information they could provide to students, parents, and educators about being safe and responsible when publishing material both online and off.  While we regularly discuss these issues in our presentations, we didn’t have anything written that could be easily distributed.  Now we do.  Feel free to download the guide and distribute it far and wide.  As always, if you have any comments, thoughts, or feedback, let us know.

Cyberbullying Research Summary: Changes in Adolescent Online Social Networking Behaviors from 2006 to 2009

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on July 20, 2010

By Justin W. Patchin and Sameer Hinduja

This Research Summary summarizes how youth are modifying their use of social networking sites as it relates to online privacy and the disclosure of personal information.

Hinduja, S. & Patchin, J. (2010). Cyberbullying research summary:
Changes in Adolescent Online Social Networking Behaviors from 2006 to 2009. Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved [insert date], from http://www.cyberbullying.us/changes_in_teens_online_social_networking_2006_2009.pdf

Download PDF

3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Set to Clarify School Reach in Off-Campus Online Speech

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on June 3, 2010

Blue Mountain School District v. J.S. and Layshock v. Hermitage School District. These are two cases that we have discussed quite frequently on this blog.  We have been waiting a long time to receive clarification from a high court regarding the circumstances under which schools can discipline students for their off-campus online speech and we thought these two cases would provide that guidance.  As we’ve noted before, the default standard has generally been that school administrators can discipline students for off-campus behavior if it can be demonstrated that such behavior resulted in a “substantial and material disruption” of the school environment (Tinker vs. Des Moines, 1969).  One problem is this issue has never really been addressed in the digital age.  Another problem is, what constitutes a disruption of a ‘substantial’ caliber is clearly in the eyes of the beholder.

Take the example of Justin Layshock, the 17-year-old Hickory High School senior who in 2005 created a “nonthreatening, non‐obscene parody profile making fun of the school principal” from his grandmother’s home using her computer.  The school suspended Layshock for 10 days, which was initially upheld in a 2006 hearing, but later overturned by the judge in the case, saying the school went too far.  Last February, a panel of judges from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in and agreed.  In this specific case it appeared the school failed to effectively argue that Layshock’s actions caused a substantial disruption at school.

In the related case, a 14-year-old eighth-grade student from Blue Mountain Middle School also created a MySpace profile of the principal which included, among other things, an accusation that he was a “sex-obsessed pedophile.”  This student was also suspended for 10 days for violating the school’s discipline code and for using the schools copyrighted material (the principal’s picture from the school’s web site) without permission. The lower court refused to grant the student a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction ruling that schools can in fact discipline students for lewd off-campus behavior, even if such behavior doesn’t cause a substantial disruption.  Another, separate panel from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court in an opinion that seemed inconsistent with the Layshock ruling.

In an effort to resolve these two conflicting perspectives, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is now revisiting both cases, by employing a 15-judge panel instead of the original separate smaller panels.  Oral arguments started today and we’ll be sure to update this post when a decision is reached.  What do you think the judges will decide?  At what point can schools take action?  At what point must they take action?

What is your Online Reputation?

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on May 28, 2010

I have been talking a lot lately about online reputation with teens.  I think it is important for youth to recognize that anything they put online and anything they do offline that gets posted online, could end up being immortalized on the World Wide Web.  I advise students to start thinking about their online reputation at an early age – the earlier the better.  I begin this discussion by asking them if they have ever ‘Googled’ themselves and ask them to think about what came.  Is it anything good?  How about something embarrassing or even inappropriate?  I tell them that without a doubt others are exploring the Internet for information.  Friends, adults in their lives, and future employers, among others, will search for them online and judge them and base decisions about jobs or other opportunities based on what they find out.  In fact, a recent study sponsored by Microsoft found that 79% of recruiters and human resources managers review information about potential employees that is available online, and 70% said they disqualified applicants due to what they found.

I suggest that teens (and adults for that matter) work extra hard to do great things at school and in the community (e.g., making the honor roll, volunteering, extra-curricular activities, etc) so that when one does search for them, they find evidence of hard work, integrity, and civic-mindedness.  This is especially important if a teen does make a mistake and posts something inappropriate online – they want to bury the bad with good things.  This can also be useful if someone is cyberbullying or harassing students by posting rumors or hurtful comments about them in a way that might show up in a search.  In fact it is difficult if not impossible to completely prevent someone from smearing you electronically – the best approach is to create an online reputation that emphasizes the positives and minimizes any of the negatives.   What have you done lately that might be found online that others might judge you on?

Should Parents Ban Access to Facebook?

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on May 11, 2010

Our colleague Anne Collier from NetFamilyNews made us aware of an email that Anthony Orsini, a middle school principal from New Jersey, sent to parents a couple of weeks ago imploring them to prohibit their children from participating in social networking sites. As reported on CBS and elsewhere, the letter Orsini sent to parents included the following text:

“Please do the following: sit down with your child (and they are just children still) and tell them that they are not allowed to be a member of any social networking site. Today! … There is absolutely no reason for any middle school student to be a part of a social networking site! Let me repeat that – there is absolutely, positively no reason for any middle school student to be a part of a social networking site! None.”

Sameer and I have been exploring adolescent social networking for almost 5 years and even though we see the worst of the worst in terms of behaviors, we also agree that such examples represent the exception, not the rule.   In general, we believe the benefits of social networking outweigh the negatives and potential risks, if youth learn to use the sites responsibly. It is certainly a very good idea for parents to talk to their kids about what they are doing online, though simply banning access to technology, without just cause, is a big mistake. For one thing, it is literally impossible for parents to completely prevent their children from participating in social networking. If they really want to be on social networking sites, they will find a way to get on: they will go to a friend’s house or log on at the library or pursue underground social networking sites that are less well known or regulated.

It is a much better strategy for parents to carefully express their concerns about these environments and teach youth how to be responsible online. Tell them that it isn’t a good idea to accept as friends those who they do not know and trust in real life. Demonstrate the dangers of posting too much personal information online. Show them how to use the privacy settings. Provide them with examples from the media where teens have gotten into trouble for misusing social networks. Our research suggests that teens are listening and improving social networking practices! Print this out and give it to them. Odds are they will be just fine if they abide by these commonsense guidelines.

Then, have your kids help you set up a Facebook page and tell them that they need to be your friend. That way you can see everything they are doing on the site and you can remind them about what you talked about if they slip up. And you can send them gifts on Farmville.

It is very important that parents and others work to instill responsible practices in youth at a relatively early age – when they will still listen. Banning access is a short-term solution that will likely create additional problems in the future when teens eventually do go online and don’t have the skills necessary to responsibly navigate the World Wide Web.

By the way, as Anne points out on her blog, the same week that the New Jersey principal distributed the email encouraging parents to ban participation in Facebook, the Boston Globe reported that Obama’s pick for Teacher of the Year regularly uses Facebook in her classes. As you know, we have discussed the issue of teachers interacting with teens online in multiple posts on this blog. While I am not sure that we have come to any definitive conclusion, it is interesting to see examples from both sides of the issue come up in the news recently. What do you think: prohibit or promote the use of online social networking?

Implications for teachers who socialize with students online, and how to avoid them

Posted by Sameer Hinduja on March 24, 2010

Let’s return to our multi-post (here, here, and here) discussion of student and teacher interaction on social networking sites or in other online venues. Social networks such as Facebook and MySpace are primarily for socializing. “Socializing” involves interacting for social purposes, and “social purposes” are those marked by friendly companionship with others. It seems, therefore, that school staff should avoid socializing with students in these environments, because educators and students arguably should not be engaged in friendly companionship.

There are some significant concerns with the possibility of students and teachers having this kind of interaction, including the issue that students flirt. If a student were to send a flirtatious message to a staff member, that staff member may be in serious trouble. If the teacher responds to the message warmly, he or she faces the accusation of sexual solicitation. If the teacher turns the student down, he or she faces the possibility of revenge.

Another concern is that the staff member participating on a social networking site will become a “guarantor” of all friends, meaning that if a teacher “friends” some students but not others, it could create a perception that those specific students are favored and may receive preferential treatment (such as a better grade than the others). Relatedly, anything performed online by a public school employee – including information and images posted on social networking sites – will be used to judge the character of that individual. There is also the concern that the friends of the staff member may post unflattering information or tag inappropriate images of them which will quickly be used to prompt one major question: “Is this the kind of person we trust to be responsible for our children?”

Ian Defeo, a substitute teacher in Cape May, New Jersey was judged by online content after giving one of his students a sticker with his band’s logo which also had the address to his MySpace page. The student then visited the teacher’s MySpace page which contained his band’s music videos containing explicit lyrics and one video that contained a brief moment where a woman was exposing herself. The school deemed this content inappropriate and therefore fired him, confirming that school employees can be disciplined for off-duty conduct if the school district can show that the conduct may have had an adverse impact on the school. Non-tenured teachers, like Ian, have even fewer protections.

All of this said, I believe school staff should be able to communicate with students regarding class work and school activities through a school-based Web 2.0 environment and district email system (sometimes also termed a “walled garden” approach). These are school-related communications in which distinctions of status are professional maintained and not socially blurred or distorted. Most communication through school-based means are monitored (for example, all communications are CC’d to an administrator or stored in an accessible database for review and archival) and provide a safer means of interaction between teachers and students. My hope is that more and more of these approaches will be implemented and, more importantly, gain visibility, traction, and usage among teachers and youth.

Referring back to the article in Education Week that I wrote about in my earlier post, Terri Miller, the president of the group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct, and Exploitation, says “policy makers should not enact reactionary legislation regarding contact between teachers and students. What they really need to focus on is training in proper boundaries.” Overall, the message to school staff members should be: Think before you act/post. Never send or post, or allow others to send or post any material online that will raise questions about your character or values. Another wise practice that seems critical to implement is to always communicate with students in a professional manner, even if you are using privacy protection features on social networking sites (as privacy protections will not necessarily prevent disclosure of the existence and content of these interactions).

Always exercise extreme care when communicating online with students and if at all possible, avoid socializing. These measures, along with district policy that preempts the possibility of inappropriate relationships developing online between staff and students, seems the best way to go.

Student-Teacher Interaction Online – Another Perspective

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on March 18, 2010

Sameer and I have talked a lot about this issue in recent months, and while we both basically agree that teacher-student interactions online are risky business, we struggle with how to best approach the issue.  Earlier today he posted his thoughts on the issue.  I would like to take this opportunity to re-articulate mine to continue the dialog.

As I have argued here before, most will agree that a lot of value could come from teachers interacting online in a professional/educational manner with their students.  Again, assuming teachers and students both establish and maintain appropriate boundaries, these interactions could be very positive.  The most serious risk would be if teachers failed to preserve proper limits or if students misperceived the online attention as something more than educational.  In his earlier post, Sameer points out several terrible examples of these – though we all agree these are extremely rare.  Of course these potential concerns are also present in off-line communications between teachers and students that occur as well (both in school and outside of it).

To be sure, teachers should refrain from friending students on social networking profiles they use for personal purposes.  Clearly separating their work and personal lives is important.  Moreover, teachers have an obligation to intervene if they see inappropriate content or evidence of a violation of school policy (or the law) on a student’s profile.  That is a cost of engaging in online communications.

Instead of prohibiting good teachers from utilizing all available tools to educate their students and promote their healthy development, focus should be placed on informing both students and staff about these concerns and fire or discipline teachers who engage in inappropriate behaviors, no matter where the occur.  Sameer theorizes that online interactions make it easier for inappropriate relationships to develop between students and staff.  That may be true, but we shouldn’t hold that against the vast majority of great teachers who will do the right thing.

Schools probably should have a clear policy that establishes the professional standard in online student-teacher interactions.  But they shouldn’t outright prohibit it.  That said, many teachers may feel, for whatever reason, that interacting with students online just isn’t for them.  Either way, it should be their choice.  But they need to be made aware of the issues so that they can make an informed decision.

Sameer and I agree that this issue is complicated and demanding of public discourse.  You have our thoughts, what do you think? Here’s another poll!