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Schools debate rules for teachers on social websites

By Jennette Barnes
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2011

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As a former Abington educator heads to court following allegations of inappropriate interaction with teenagers on Facebook, school districts that do not have policies governing online social networking are working to complete them as soon as possible.

Schools officials say they want not only to protect students from predators, but also to protect teachers who have good intentions from getting involved in students’ lives in inappropriate ways or ways that create the appearance of impropriety.

Sharon and Cohasset are among the communities where school committees expect to vote on the policies in late summer or fall. If they do, the towns will join Norton, Weymouth, Braintree, Foxborough, and others south of Boston.

Many communities, including Abington, have adopted policies based on a model the Massachusetts Association of School Committees sent to districts during the last school year.

The model bans teachers from connecting with students as friends on social networking sites and “improper fraternization’’ via the Internet, cellphone, texting, or telephone.

The guidelines ban teachers from giving students their home telephone numbers or private cellphone numbers without prior approval.

The perils of social-media interaction between students and teachers, documented in cases around the country, hit the Boston area when Jon O’Keefe, an Abington High School boys tennis coach and substitute teacher, was accused of offering to buy alcohol for students and seeking sex from them in exchange for money.

O’Keefe, 31, of Waltham, was fired in May over the allegations and is due in court next month.

He faces three counts of sexual conduct for a fee, two counts of reckless endangerment of a child, and one count of enticing a child under 16, said Assistant Plymouth District Attorney Catherine Ham.

Sharon hopes to craft a policy that will prevent serious problems before they start.

Timothy Farmer, Sharon’s school superintendent, said that social networking between students and staff could create the perception of inappropriate relationships, even where none exist, so staff members should avoid getting involved in students’ social world online.

“Professionals, especially in the education community, need to be concerned about what is appropriate with regard to communicating with students,’’ he said.

School Committee members have worked with Farmer to create a detailed draft, more than double the length of the model.

In addition to prohibiting staff from initiating or accepting friend requests on Facebook or similar platforms, the draft warns staff about the unequal power in the student-teacher relationship.

“Employees should be mindful that the uneven power dynamics of a school, in which adults have implied authority over current and former students, continues to shape those relationships after the end of the school day and year and even after graduation,’’ the draft states. “Employees must act in a manner that always respects and never exploits the power inherent in these relationships.’’

Farmer said Sharon reviewed policies in Norton and Foxborough to help create the draft. The Norton policy forbids staff members from friending current students or former students under 18.

It also points out that teachers are already required to maintain professional boundaries, such as by communicating with students only on school-related activities and not giving a student excessive attention.

The same standards apply to electronic communication, the Norton policy states.

Patricia Ansay, school superintendent in Norton, said it was a challenge to create an effective policy without discouraging legitimate communication.

It’s difficult from an administrative point of view, too, she said, “because you want teachers to be part of the community, and many of them go so far out of their way to make sure their students are successful.’’

In Cohasset, School Committee member Jeanne Astino said electronic communication should be part of an overall policy on professional conduct.

The committee has been working on a policy and will resume discussing it soon, probably in September, she said.

Not all school officials oppose social-media contacts between teachers and students.

Teachers sometimes create Internet pages to communicate with a club as a group, said Mitch Blaustein, a member of the Sharon School Committee.

Sharon’s draft policy says club advisers and coaches must send communications to all team or club members, unless doing so would compromise medical or academic privacy.

Under the draft policy, coaches and advisers must send copies to the principal and, in the case of sports, to the athletic director, as well.

The draft also has an exception for principals to approve the distribution of telephone numbers when doing so improves student safety, such as during field trips or exchange programs in which students are not in sight of chaperones.

Blaustein said he does not necessarily want to see friending forbidden.

“I think the staff should be smart enough with what they do and say on Facebook,’’ he said.

But Blaustein said he would probably vote to ban such friending as part of an overall policy.

Astino, too, does not believe in completely eliminating social-media contacts between teachers and students, but she said staff members’ behavior must be guided by standards of professional conduct.

“You have to keep that moral compass switched in the on position,’’ she said.

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said the state has seen a few “media squabbles’’ in which teachers unions objected to school districts adopting policies that address what they do outside of school.

“A lot of people take a libertarian view,’’ he said.

Some policies, including Braintree’s, warn that nothing posted online is fully private and that Internet activity can affect how staff members are perceived in the community and at school.

The Braintree policy adds, “Posting items with sexual content and those exhibiting or advocating use of alcohol and/or illegal drugs is inappropriate.’’

Koocher praised communities for engaging in “incredibly healthy debate’’ on the subject of social media.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at jennettebarnes@yahoo.com.