Banning Teachers From Communicating With Their Students on Social Media

In the age of social media like Facebook and Twitter, school administrators are asking whether such electronic communication is appropriate between students and teachers. They are wondering where boundaries for such communication should be placed. Many school boards are choosing a strict path, forbidding or restricting any communication via social media between students and teachers.

Recently, the Missouri state legislature attempted to block contact between students and former students under age 18 and their teachers via social networking sites that provide “exclusive” access (a private, one-on-one means of communication). The overall goal of this law, the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, enacted on July 14, 2011, is to protect school-aged children from sexual predators at school.

The ban reads like this:

No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a work-related internet site unless such site is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian.

No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a nonwork-related internet site which allows exclusive access with a current or former student.

The idea is to discourage teachers and students from communicating exclusively, without a parent, guardian or school administrator being able to access the message.

Republican State Senator Jane Cunningham, who sponsored the bill, told Huffington Post, “We are by no means trying to stop communication, just make it appropriate and make it available to those who should be seeing it,” Cunningham said. “Exclusive communication is a pathway into the sexual misconduct.”

Civil liberties groups and educators challenged this government initiative, and at the end of August 2011, a Missouri court granted a temporary injunction against the law’s enforcement, insofar as it affected teacher-student communications. According to, the judge reasoned that the ban would chill free speech, and likely violate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon called for the state legislature to repeal the provisions of the law concerning student-teacher communications and come up with a better alternative. This new alternative would discard the social media ban, and instead would leave it up to school districts to come up with their own policies to “prevent improper communications” between school employees and students, including on electronic media. School districts will be allowed an extended deadline—March 1, 2012, instead of January 1, 2012—by which to adopt the new policies.

Read Legal Professor Anita Ramasastry’s strong argument in support of the judge’s injunction and her analysis of this new alternative.

Although this case is currently being debated in the United States, it is a topic of interest for all countries including Canada.

The Ontario College of Teachers’ regulatory board forbids its members from accepting Facebook friend requests from students. The “Professional Advisory on the Use of Electronic Communication and Social Media” outlines appropriate conduct for electronic messages, complete with explanations of criminal and civil law implications. Teachers are instructed to only communicate with students electronically during “appropriate times of the day and through established education platforms.”

Moreover, teachers must decline student-initiated online “friend requests” and never initiate a friend request with a student. They must understand that they are, in some ways, always on duty and bound by standards of conduct. The board asserts that when a teacher and a student become friends in an online environment, the dynamic between them is forever changed. An invisible line between professional and personal is crossed, which can lead to strictly forbidden informal conversations.

With the new advisory in place, teachers must know that if they post inflammatory comments via social media, they could find themselves in the unemployment line.

Note: the use of social media in the classroom is not prohibited. Teachers can continue to use social media to foster learning opportunities in class.

Ontario Teacher and educational technology blogger, Graham Whisen, takes a positive view:

The teacher-student relationship has always been one in which the teacher guides students through a process of discovery and learning. If social media supports this process, then why is it so inappropriate?

Social media allows teachers to reach students using the communication tools they use daily. It breaks down the walls of the classroom, showing students that learning happens everywhere and at all times. It allows students to collaborate together and facilitates communication. Most importantly, it connects students with each other and encourages them to have meaningful conversations about their learning.

However, Whisen doesn’t say precisely where he stands on teachers communicating with students via social media.

I’ve no doubt that this debate will continue for some time. And so it should—in public.

The advance of mobile technology and social media has opened up new channels of communication that are at least as common as email, and more ubiquitous. We’ve already accepted social media into our classrooms. Prohibited or not, it seems a foregone conclusion that students and teachers will use the new channels to communicate with each other. Student-teacher relationships can’t help but be affected by these cultural changes.

It remains to be seen whether these measures protect students from teacher predators or inappropriate relationships. While regulations are certainly important to warn and deter teachers from acting improperly and to describe disciplinary policy, teachers must make sure they act in a manner that befits their position. Responsible teachers can teach students how to act responsibly, in social media and everything they do.

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