School district adopts policy on social media

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Powell school district employees must follow a new set of rules when they interact with students online, use personal web pages or post to social media sites.

The four-page social networking policy was approved last month by the Park County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees. Chairman Greg Borcher said he thought it was needed “after some of the posts that I’ve seen.”

Superintendent Jay Curtis told the board that the intent is to help guide employees and to “modernize our district.”

“Social media is a real and present danger,” Curtis said. “In a lot of districts, this has gotten away from them, and I don’t want to be one of those districts.”

Curtis told the board earlier this year that some Park 1 employees have posted things online that were considered a little questionable.

“It’s been turned in by other teachers who say, ‘Why are they talking about our school like that? Why are they talking about our kids like that?’” Curtis said.

The new policy is intended to bring clarity and address those issues.

“I’m not looking for a hammer here,” Curtis said. “What I’m looking for is guidance for our staff members.”

Under the new policy, employees are also prohibited from having current students as friends or “followers” on social media sites, such as Facebook or Instagram. An exception is made if an employee and student have a family relationship or “other type of appropriate relationship which originated outside of the school setting.”

Curtis gathered input from district employees in recent months before the board moved forward with the policy. When the final draft was sent to employees, he received comments from some coaches who were worried about contacting their athletes.

The policy outlines rules for coaches, advisers and teachers who want to use social media to communicate with students about games, announcements or meetings for a school-based activity. If there is a page for a sport or club, students can’t be established as friends with the coach or teacher, but as members of the group list. The principal must be notified of the page, and parents will be allowed to access any site their child is invited to join.

The policy also says that all communication with students must be professional in nature, both inside and outside of the classroom.

“Although it is desired that staff members have a sincere interest in students as individuals, partiality and the appearance of impropriety must be avoided,” the policy says.

Teachers and coaches who decide to give out their personal cellphone or home phone numbers “need to understand the personal risks associated with that,” Curtis said.

If texting students, an employee should text a group of kids, not a single student. If there’s a need to text an individual student who, for example, isn’t at practice, the coach “probably needs to text their parent as well,” Curtis said.

Administrators have talked about looking into a third-party app that coaches could use to communicate with students, he said.

Under the new policy, employees are also responsible for content they post on their personal pages outside of school hours.

The policy says that while the board respects staff members’ right to use social media on their personal time as a form of self-expression, “employees are responsible for their public conduct even when they are not performing their job duties as employees of the school system.”

Remarks made on social media can have far-reaching and unintended consequences, the policy notes.

“Opinions expressed by staff on a social networking website have the potential to be disseminated far beyond the speaker’s desire or intention, and could undermine the public perception of fitness of the individual to educate students, and thus undermine teaching effectiveness,” the policy reads.

It outlines principles for employees to follow when communicating through social media, including not posting confidential information about students, not using internet posts to libel or harass and not posting inappropriate content.

Employees who violate any part of the policy are subject to disciplinary action, from having their online activity monitored when using school equipment up to dismissal.

The Wyoming Professional Teaching Standards Board’s Code of Conduct already outlines rules for educators’ use of social media.

“Exercise prudence in your posts,” the PTSB Code of Conduct reads. “If you don’t want the Superintendent reading it aloud to you in a meeting, don’t post it.”

The Park 1 policy also prohibits employees from posting identifiable images of a student without permission from the student and a parent.

Some staff members worried that meant they couldn’t post a photo of their own child at a sporting event if other students were also pictured.

“That was not the intent of the policy,” Curtis said, adding that it only applies to photos taken in a school setting. Sporting events, assemblies or concerts are considered public events, he said.

The school board unanimously approved the policy at their March 12 meeting.

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