Monday, August 01, 2011

Stupid is as stupid does

Missouri has passed a law to ban teachers from friending students on Facebook and other social networks.
According to Missouri Senate Bill 54 that goes into effect on August 28, any social networking — not just Facebook — is prohibited between teachers and students. It’s all part of an effort to “more clearly define teacher-student boundaries.” However, KSPR reports that it’s only direct social media contact that’s prohibited; teachers are allowed to create Facebook Pages where all students have direct access to the teacher in a more public setting.

Inappropriate contact between students and teachers is at the root of the legislation. Senate Bill 54 is designed to protect children from sexual misconduct by teachers, compelling school districts to adopt written policies between teachers and students on electronic media, social networking and other forms of communication.
This is another example of a school district or states adopting a sledge hammer to kill a fly. The problem is not communication on Facebook between students and teachers. The problem is that there are creepy adults out there who are acting inappropriately with children. There are laws and school policies against that sort of thing. In a logical world, if a student was being harassed by a teacher, an administrator could investigate and take appropriate action even firing the teacher. But with teacher unions and tenure laws, that's not so easy anymore. We've all heard stories about the New York rubber rooms where teachers that the school district fears shouldn't be in classrooms are kept on the payroll doing nothing. Here's a similar story from Wisconsin on how the union protects a creepy guy who shouldn't be in the classroom.
A high school teacher in Cedarburg was fired for viewing porn at school while working on his school district computer, in violation of the high school’s computer use policy which strictly prohibited “accessing, sending or displaying offensive messages, pictures or child pornography.” (Among other images, Robert Zellner had retained photographs of female students of the district wearing bikinis while on a school-sponsored trip to Hawaii that Zellner chaperoned.) Zellner was a union activist, so the teachers’ union dug in and resisted the personnel change, filing suit in federal court and taking the matter all the way to the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The union eventually lost, but in its nearly three-year effort to keep fired teacher Robert Zellner from returning to Cedarburg High School, the school district spent roughly $267,000 on legal expenses — enough to pay the annual salary and pre-Walker benefits of four teachers. (links in the original)
Sure, there could be some teachers whom would be unjustly accused by a student. I would hope that administrators would be sensitive to such accusations, but I'm also sensitive to the concerns of an administrator who must juggle the needs of the students versus those of the teacher. I would prefer to trust the administrator just as I would prefer to trust their judgment instead of having these zero tolerance rules that require kids to be suspended for bringing an Alka Seltzer or plastic knife to school. School districts don't trust the administrators to have the flexibility to deal with such cases so they make a blanket rule that covers everything from the most serious infractions to more innocent events.

And that is just what this Missouri law is - an over-broad law to address the inability of the state to trust the judgment of its school administrators.

As the article points out, there are going to be problems policing the policy.
However, we wonder how this will be policed. Will the state be allowed access to Facebook accounts, personal computers or Internet service provider records to see who’s befriending teachers or students? Inappropriate relationships will be hard to detect, especially since teachers and students engaged in such relationships would probably be concealing their communications, electronic or otherwise.
Does such a law pass the teacher's rights of association? I have no idea.

What I do know is that I'm a Facebook friend with quite a few of my students. I don't ever initiate the friendship, but if they're comfortable with letting me see their posts, I appreciate the opportunity to get to know them a bit better. Quite a few of the teachers at my school are friends with their students. Some of us have fun communicating about non-school subjects. A lot of this generation would much prefer to communicate via Facebook rather than email. We've found it a handy way to share Quiz Bowl information and trivia with our team. Student post links to stories or sites they've found and we have some fun talking about them. And it's also a good lesson for the students to be careful about what they're posting so that they don't put up something that would come back to bite them later. If they have at the back of their minds that several of their teachers can see what they post, they're less likely to put up something that they don't want a future employer to see.

Why shut off this element of teacher-student communication just because the state is afraid of a few bad actors? Are they going to ban email between students and teachers next? That could also lead to creepy and inappropriate interactions. Why draw the line at social networking?

Instead of writing such a stupid law, give some credit to your school administrators to decide if something untoward is going or has gone on. Give credit to your teachers to not be idiots with their students. If they're going to be idiots, it will show up on other ways than just Facebook. The problem isn't Facebook, it's the teachers who are already violating school policies about inappropriate behavior with students. Address that, not Facebook and stop making stupid blanket rules. Gosh, it's one more reason why I think my stars to be teaching at a charter school where we can trust the judgment of both the teachers and the administrators.