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Internet policies examined

Schools aim to clarify social rules

By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / December 26, 2010

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Teachers in Weymouth, Foxborough, and Norton can’t be “friends’’ with students on Facebook or other social networking sites, and a number of other school districts south of Boston are considering a similar ban.

“I don’t want my kids to know what their teachers do after school or on the weekends,’’ said Sean Guilfoyle, chairman of the Weymouth School Committee. “This not only protects the students, but it also protects the staff. It allows them to have a personal life and not worry about what’s being posted when they’re talking to their families or friends.’’

Cohasset, Hingham, Milton, and Randolph are among the communities working on Facebook policies for school staff, inspired in part by “model’’ rules on the subject distributed this fall by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

The association’s suggested rules begin with the need for administrators to “annually remind staff members and orient new staff members concerning the importance of maintaining proper decorum in the online, digital world as well as in person.’’

While the association recommends forbidding teachers and students from “fraternizing’’ online, spokesman Michael J. Gilbert said any policy “does not and should not discourage the use of social networking tools as educational tools within the curriculum.’’

Weymouth tweaked the association’s page-long list of do’s and don’ts into a more basic commandment: “As a teacher, you can’t have students in your personal networking sites,’’ Guilfoyle said.

He said the School Committee approved the policy earlier this month to be proactive, not because of any incidents of inappropriate behavior.

“If you google ‘Facebook student-teacher relations,’ there are absolute horror stories,’’ he said. “We said, let’s not wait for something to happen. Let’s get in front of it and make sure if something is going on, the superintendent has the ability to do something about it.’’

Foxborough Superintendent Christopher Martes said his district added the ban on Facebook and social networking relationships when it was updating its policies earlier this month — also not because of any problems. The policy allows the administration to monitor teachers’ computer use and to take disciplinary action, including firing violators.

“It’s just good professional conduct,’’ Martes said, adding that he hadn’t received any reaction from teachers.

In Weymouth, the teachers were concerned enough about the issue that a union team met with School Committee and administration members to suggest different language, Guilfoyle said.

He said the main concern was that teachers who are parents of students wouldn’t be able to communicate via Facebook with their children. He said the School Committee didn’t make any of the suggested changes, deciding they were not necessary.

“Obviously, family trumps students,’’ Guilfoyle said, adding that teachers would have to make sure security settings would block their child’s friends from viewing the teachers’ information.

“I don’t think we’re impeding anyone’s right to maintain relationships with friends and family. And I have heard from dozens of parents saying they’re glad we’re doing this. There need to be parameters. There need to be very definitive lines’’ between personal and professional relationships, he said.

Norton’s School Committee adopted a detailed social media policy this fall, similar to the one approved in Foxborough. But after negative feedback, the Norton committee approved a simpler no-friends rule.

In Milton, School Committee chairwoman Lynda Lee Sheridan said a subcommittee is reviewing Facebook policies and will make a recommendation to the full committee early next year. “It definitely is on everybody’s radar screen. It is important to be aware of these issues in this day and age,’’ she said.

Hingham and Randolph also are close to adopting new social media policy for their staff, officials said.

Cohasset Superintendent Denise Walsh said the School Committee in her town also is considering a Facebook policy. The subject is particularly timely there, since a school administrator resigned this year after her uncomplimentary comments about Cohasset residents — calling them “arrogant’’ and “snobby’’ — appeared in a public portion of her Facebook account.

Guilfoyle said Weymouth was glad to be among the first schools in the state to have the Facebook policy, which has been adopted elsewhere in the country.

“We were the first school to become smoke-free, four years ago. It’s OK to be the test case,’’ he said.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seelenfam@verizon.net.