Monday, June 09, 2008

South Florida schools have major issues with teacher personal social networking profiles

The major news media sources are becoming more aware particularly of the ease with which controversy can arise from material that teachers post about themselves online, whether in personal blogs or particularly on social networking sites.

On June 3, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel ran an editorial “Teachers foolish enough to post racy material online deserve punishment,” under the issue “Educators post racy photos,” with the link here. “They will be viewed. They will get around” the editorial reads. Apparently this holds whether or not the material is nominally marked “private” or left open to the general public and especially to search engines.

The original story appeared in this paper June 1 and was reported by Stephanie Sorvath, titled “Area teachers post questionable content on Facebook,” link here. Apparently, according to the news story, several of the postings in question were sexually explicit or in obvious bad taste according to typical social norms expected in a school environment. The story reports Boca Raton PTA president saying that children will believe that teachers are setting an example of what is acceptable behavior when they post such material online. There were supposedly over 80000 people in Broward and Palm Beach counties who would have been able to see the material. Some authorities are saying that switching a page to private would provide acceptable control of access – but others say some material will get around anyway.

The story also indicates that an attorney with the National Education Association has noted a serious problem with younger teachers who have entered teaching jobs after living their college years in cyberspace on the web.

One person (maybe a teacher) posted a letter to the newspaper on June 3 “Story on teachers’ Facebook profiles didn’t need to include names,” link here. Okay, I didn't repeat the names in this blog posting, but I very well could have.

Some teachers don’t seem to realize how public postings on the Internet really are (sometimes even when “private”). Some don’t seem to realize that the “right to privacy” does not encompass material one has voluntarily made public (“published” in the legal meaning of the term) to anyone.

I didn’t see in these stories indications of teachers getting into trouble for controversial but less explicit material (like the “fiction” item that got me in trouble, as discussed in the July 2007 archive on my main blog – see archives).

Curiously, I found this entry on blogspot that appeared to be written by and “Independent School Educator’s List” which seems to suggest that teachers not have non-professional social networking profiles at all in the current climate.

Stories and editorials like these need to be reviewed in the context of short-term subs, who may make much less and have much less responsibility in practice.

I was “tipped off” about this development in Florida with a short byline on page A14 of today’s (June 9) Washington Times in print.

South Carolina has a law called the "Teacher Employment and Dismissal Act" (link here) which (in section 59-25-430) authorizes dismissal of teachers for disregard of administrative conduct regulations. A Law firm (Duff, White & Turner LLC) has interpreted this provision as justifying dismissal even for off-campus Internet activity that "results in a school disruption, or otherwise negatively impacts on the employee’s credibility," as in the Education Law Publication from June 2006, "THE INTERNET AND PUBLIC SCHOOLS: and Similar Websites Pose New Challenges for School Officials," link here. The law firm encourages school districts (in South Carolina and presumably any state) to specify personnel policies that, while recognizing personal is generally not the concern of the district, allow discipline and termination for off-campus activities that could reasonably affect the ability of the teacher to function as a role model in front of teachers and parents.

I had commented on a major Washington Post story (“wild on the web”) on this blog on April 28. It is disturbing how quickly “online reputation defense” is becoming an issue for teachers (even subs), many of whom really don’t understand the dynamics of the issue themselves (nor do administrators) even though some of them will have to teach this concept to middle and high school students themselves. The major media outlets still don’t have a clear grasp of this problem, even though they are finally reporting it more often.

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