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Pitfalls await teachers who publicize lives on social media

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Thursday, Aug. 18, 2011

Kim Piekut tells fellow teachers to avoid Facebook and other social media.

The potential pitfalls when teachers publicize their personal lives or communicate privately with students is too great, she said.

"It's not appropriate for teachers to befriend students outside of school," said Piekut, a high school English teacher and vice president of the South Allegheny Education Association. Just as teachers wouldn't call students outside school, "we don't advise social networking with kids outside of school."

Teachers and administrators can see examples of the dangers all around them. The Brownsville Area School District suspended a teacher because of a Facebook photo someone else posted showing her posing with a stripper. The Monessen School Board accepted the resignation of a teacher who was sentenced for trying to initiate sexual contact with minors over the Internet.

This month, the Missouri legislature put the issue into the national spotlight when, as part of a broader law to protect students from sexual predators, it banned private communication between teachers and students on Facebook and other social networking sites.

Now, school districts in Pennsylvania are looking to establish written boundaries between teachers and students online. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association is developing a model that the state's 500 districts can use as a guideline, said spokesman Steve Robinson.

"This is something they want to make sure they have a policy to protect themselves, students and staff," said Robinson, adding he couldn't yet provide any detail on the language in the model.

Last year, North Allegheny updated its technology policy to include social networking in and out of school. The district advises employees to represent themselves online in a "respectful, relevant way that ... protects the reputation of the district in every regard."

Teachers who violate district policy or the state School Code's standards for professional practice and conduct face consequences ranging from termination to suspension or revocation of their license.

Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair school officials say they are working on policies that balance ensuring students' safety and keeping channels of communication open for educational purposes.

Upper St. Clair would require students and staff to communicate online through the district's internal e-mail and messaging system, which the district can monitor. Mt. Lebanon's proposal also would ban private communication.

School officials also must consider freedom-of-speech issues.

Ryan Dunmire, 28, of West Homestead, a business education teacher until Steel Valley School District laid her off in May, said teachers are held to different standards.

She has a Facebook page but said she limits what she puts on her page, which isn't viewable to anyone but those people she accepts as friends. None are students.

"I would never put anything up that would make me be seen in a bad light," Dunmire said.

In 2008, a federal judge sided with Millersville University in Lancaster County when the school denied a woman her teaching degree because of a photo of her wearing a pirate hat posted on her MySpace page with the caption "drunken pirate."

The fact that the government employs teachers muddies the waters when it comes to policies that appear to limit their free-speech rights, said Robert Richards, founding director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Penn State University.

The private sector has more control over employees' speech but, "clearly government workers give up some First Amendment rights in a variety of fashions," he said.

Bethany Fenyus, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Steel Valley Middle School, said she would not want an outright ban on online teacher-student interaction.

Fenyus, 34, said she decided to create a class Twitter page for its potential educational benefits.

Steel Valley doesn't have a policy regarding social media use, but Fenyus got permission from her superintendent and principal to set up the account. She had parents sign an informational sheet acknowledging that she intended the page to be used for educational purposes and that she wasn't personally responsible for how students used it.

She said she's never had a problem with any tweets.

"I've told them that I'm getting everything you're tweeting so remember to keep it appropriate," Fenyus said.

Fenyus said she'll send tweets from a vacation spot in hopes that students might go online and learn more about the place. She'll also let students know about education shows on the History Channel.

"I'll tweet something that I think they'd find interesting or is educational," she said.

Additional Information:

Online dangers

A few cases in which social media websites got teachers into trouble:

• Barrow County, Ga.: Ashley Payne, a high school English teacher sued to get her job back after being fired when someone anonymously told school officials that a student accessed the teacher's page and viewed photos of her drinking alcohol. The district couldn't prove a student ever viewed the page.

• Brooklyn, N.Y.: Christine Rubino, a fifth-grade teacher, faces termination after saying she hated her students and that a trip to the beach would be good for them, a day after a 12-year-old student drowned there on a school trip.

• Brownsville, Pa.: Ginger D'Amico, a high school Spanish teacher, was suspended (but later reinstated) over a photo taken at a bachelorette party that showed her posing with a stripper.

• Cohasset, Mass.: June Talvitie-Siple, a high school math and science teacher, resigned after parents saw Facebook posts, which the teacher thought were private, where she called district residents 'arrogant and snobby.'

Sources: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, New York Post, Tribune-Review, Boston Globe

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