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Social media policy scrapped by Bethel Park School Board; teachers to drop labor charge

| Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The Bethel Park School Board rescinded a nearly 2-year-old social media policy for staff and volunteers this week after the teachers' union agreed to withdraw an unfair labor charge it filed with the state Labor Relations Board, officials said.

Asserting that the policy with rules for using cell phones, Facebook, Twitter and blogs was overly broad, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania last year also told district officials it was prepared to take legal action against the district.

Bethel Park school directors voted 5-0 Tuesday to scrap the policy; four members were absent. Board members couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.

“Under the advisement of our solicitors, we rescinded it to give us some time to review it,” district Superintendent Nancy Aloi Rose said.

The Bethel Park Federation of Teachers filed an unfair labor charge against the district over its social media policy in early 2012, said Diann Smith, president of the union.

“It was just written so broadly that people were afraid to speak up regarding anything for fear this policy could be used against employees of the district,” she said.

The union, which has about 500 members, and the district have been negotiating a new labor contract since January 2010, she said. The last contract expired in June 2010.

A state Labor Relations Board hearing over the social media policy scheduled for late July had been postponed, and now will be cancelled, Smith said.

In September 2011, the school board adopted a social media policy to apply to employees and volunteers. Among other things, it banned employees from using cell phones and all online tools for inappropriate communication — which it defined as obscene, lewd, vulgar, inflammatory or threatening — and for prejudicial and discriminatory attacks.

The policy also prohibited employees from using social media to make derogatory remarks about students, school board members and district employees.

Rose said the policy didn't result from any ongoing issues over employees' use of social media, but came about as the district reviewed its technology policies.

“We were trying to keep our teachers out of trouble,” she said.

The ACLU, which got involved after receiving complaints from Bethel Park employees, believed the policy had the potential to infringe on employees' and volunteers' rights to free speech, said Sara Rose, a staff attorney in the ACLU's Oakland office.

“Since a school district is a government employer, they still have to comply with the First Amendment,” Rose said, and courts have ruled that government can only limit speech on matters of public concern if the government's interest outweighs the employee's or the public's right to hear it.

The ACLU didn't take legal action, but said it was prepared to in an April 12, 2012, letter to the district, Sara Rose said.

The Bethel Park district crafted the social media policy based on another school district's policy, which Bethel Park received from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. The Mechanicsburg-based association never has had a social media policy model of its own, and is no longer sending school districts policies from other districts, spokesman Steve Robinson said.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or Freelance writer Eric Eisert contributed.

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