Should teachers 'friend' students on Facebook?

Can school teachers "friend" their students on Facebook or other social-networking sites? And can they talk critically or at all about their schools and students in public forums?

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These issues, which raise a complex mix of questions about appropriate behavior and freedom of speech for teachers working in kindergarten through high school (K-12) in particular, is roiling into legal stand-offs as well as teacher firings recently throughout the country. (12 tips for safe social networking.)

In Manatee County in Florida, for instance, a proposed policy from the school board would require teachers to get written permission from parents if they want to communicate with students via Web sites.  The proposal would also prohibit pictures or comments that cast the district, teachers or students in a negative light. This plan is getting fierce pushback from the local teacher's union, which filed a complaint with the state saying the new rules would violate teachers' right to privacy and speech. Earlier in the year, one teacher got a five-day unpaid suspension for saying how he hated his job and his students on Facebook, and another high-school teacher, accused of inappropriate communication with more than 100 students on Facebook, now faces getting fired allegedly because of some of the content that was posted there.

Facebook imbroglios are bursting out elsewhere, too. In New York City,  three teachers — two male and one female — from city high schools were fired in the past six months, according to reports, for sexually-laced communications on Facebook, which sometimes led to a relationship with students they had "friended." In a fourth instance, a substitute teacher is said to have been fired for allegedly giving extra credit to students who "friended" him and he's been barred from subbing.

In Norton, Mass., the school board has told teachers not to become friends with their students on Facebook and other social-networking sites, and also to avoid friendships with former students as well, according to reports. The Norton policy also is said to urge school superintendents to "periodically conduct Internet searches to see if teachers have posted inappropriate materials online."

For those involved in advocating use of online learning technologies, the social-networking questions related to teacher, student and freedom of speech are admittedly tough to answer. But some say social networking should be viewed in the overall context of how teachers are expected to interact with students in general and social networking shouldn't be rejected outright.

"In general, there's a discouragement of an overt friend-to-friend relationship," says Matthew Wicks, vice president of strategy and organization development at the International Association of K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL), whose membership includes a wide range of public school districts, private schools, and providers of online instructional programs and technology. "But that doesn't mean every relationship has to be about the math assignment. There will be interests in college and careers."

About five years ago, many schools had to confront the question involving instant-message "buddy lists," and some school systems said "no" to this relationship between teacher and student, others said "yes," Wicks points out.

Using any online communication assumes appropriate behavior between teacher and student, and when used right, offers a way to extend the learning day less formally.  "We need to recognize the value and potential of social networking to extend education," Wicks says.

Wicks questions the idea of outright restricting social-networking communications between teachers and students in the K-12 world. But "it's new territory,"  he acknowledges, and school districts are trying to find their way.  He's heard some schools say the teacher "shouldn't initiate the friend request, others say don't accept a friend request, unless something is set up specifically for an educational purpose."

Mixing the personal life with the professional one can be a minefield. That's because if a student does interact with a teacher on Facebook, that means the entire stream of pictures, videos, and discussion should never stray beyond the bounds of the appropriate, which could be hard to guarantee.

But the privacy and freedom-of-speech issues also have public advocacy groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, circling to step into contentious social-networking disputes.

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