Study: Inconsistent social media policies could spell trouble for teachers

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – A recent analysis conducted by a University of Florida educational leadership scholar indicates the lack of concrete policy on the use of social media by teachers and other school employees is increasing the potential for misuse and inappropriate teacher-student relationships online.

Doctoral candidate Jesse Gates, an assistant principal at Hartley Elementary School in St. Johns County, found less than half of the 68 school districts have a dedicated social media policy, but none is comprehensive enough to adequately address all the key elements of Florida's case law concerning public school employees' use of social media.

Gates' research covered the primary school districts in all of Florida's 67 counties, plus Florida Virtual School, the state's Internet-based public K-12 school.

"The main focus of my dissertation was to analyze the existing policies through the lens of a public employee's freedom of speech rights in hopes of creating a policy that addressed the main case law involving public employees and freedom of speech issues," Gates said.

The findings come at a time of growing awareness of social media "misdeeds" by teachers, as evidenced by a rising trend of teacher firings and suspensions due to inappropriate communications on Facebook and other social media outlets, Gates writes in his dissertation research report.

Teachers have been punished up to and including termination for posting inappropriate photos as well as inflammatory comments on blogs about supervisors and fellow teachers, and engaging in unprofessional online interactions with students. In 2013, a South Florida high school teacher was arrested on charges for using Facebook to solicit sex from students ages 15 to 17.

"It's also important to note that every school district has an ‘acceptable use policy' (AUP) that basically covers inappropriate use of the Internet," Gates said. "Some districts, 32 of them as of my research, have gone above and beyond the AUP to address the use of Social Media."

Gates explained that while a social media policy isn't an ironclad way to stop misdeeds, it provides employees protection and a more focused idea of what behavior is allowed on social media.

"Realistically, in extreme cases, it's doubtful that a clear and concise social networking policy would have made a difference," Gates said. "Many of the issues we read about really aren't violations of a social media policy, per se; they are usually violations of the code of ethics. Social networking just makes it easier for a teacher to prey on students."

Gates makes several recommendations to improve district policies, including clarifying key terminology, explaining freedom of speech limitations for public employees, specifying enforcement of the policy and relating the policy to the teacher code of conduct.

"In terms of public policy analysis and improving practices at the school board level, it's a valid piece of work," Craig Wood, UF educational administration and policy professor stated in reference to Gates' research.

Woods, who is also Gates' dissertation chair continued, "His [Gates] work includes a sample social media policy based on current state statutes that could serve as a template for school districts' development or improvement of their policies."

The responsibility of how to balance public employees' right to freedom of speech with their obligations as public servants have generally have been given to public schools to decide and not the courts, Gates said.

"This is a huge responsibility," Gates said. "Social networking has made this conflict more prevalent."

Despite the challenges, Gates notes that studies have indicated that Facebook and other social media outlets can increase student engagement and improve cross-cultural collaboration and community building.

"When it comes to social networking and texting policies, I really do hate to see a complete ban on their use because studies have shown they can be beneficial to learning and engagement," Gates said.

Gates successfully defended his 145-page dissertation titled, "A Public Policy Analysis of Social Networking in Florida Public Schools." He will graduate in December with a doctorate in leadership in educational administration.