Avoiding problems with social media

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Schools cannot ignore social media for any longer, says Susan Hall ― but vigilance is the watchword.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that schools are at least mildly suspicious of social media. While the world is seduced by Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and others, the education world remains unmoved, or even vaguely hostile. Yet even if that last statement is something of an exaggeration, it is worth remembering that you cannot ignore social media forever.

Like it or not, it is here to stay and it is folly to suggest otherwise. Given that, it is desirable, if not entirely essential, that teachers confront the realities and work out the best way to deal with it. 

Notwithstanding the benefits of social media, it is easy to see why schools are slightly nervous about it. Using Facebook and Twitter, although not exclusively these portals, opens up a new world with potential for cyber-bullying, defamation and conflicts of interest, albeit in extreme cases. How, then, is it best to avoid these kind of pitfalls?

The answer is simple: prevention not cure. Thinking about your social media policy now, whether as an individual teacher or as a head, can prevent problems later down the line.

It is important to consider these things because the appropriate bodies with responsibilities for schools have not been hugely consistent with their advice. One place that has been proactive is New York City. 

There, teachers are banned from contacting students via Facebook or Twitter, unless it is via a page set up specifically for the classroom. Common sense? Quite possibly, but at least such common sense is now in the form of an enforceable policy.

First, the bad news

Even passionate proponents of social media, myself included, concede that there are potential pitfalls of using it, particularly in a professional capacity. One of the first problems people will consider is the risk of bullying or harassment. Having a social media presence offers people the chance to contact you and, in many cases, for their messages to be made personal. That is something to bear in mind.

Clearly social media also has the potential to bring you, and by extension your social life, closer to your students and vice versa. Without taking appropriate steps, you could quite easily open up your life to students or, perhaps worse, parents. Imagine personal photos being viewed by either and you may begin to feel slightly panicked. There is also the chance that job-hunting teachers have their Facebook accounts scoured by schools to evaluate their suitability for an education role.

Equally, social media may reveal to you information about your students’ lives that it would be preferable not to know. While a teacher needs to be aware of cyber-bullying and similar problems such as “sexting” (teenage pupils exchanging revealing photographs of themselves), there is a fine line to be drawn between matters relevant to school discipline and those which are purely a matter of the pupils’ personal lives (protected under the Human Rights Act).

There have been cases in the US of teachers requiring pupils to reveal Facebook passwords. These have been severely criticised by the courts as infringement of civil liberties. The same result would apply here.

Tips for the teacher

Bearing in mind such potential hazards, being vigilant is clearly important. The NASUWT is one teachers’ union that issues guidance on how individual teachers should use social media. This kind of guidance, followed correctly, can prevent legal headaches for both teachers and the schools that employ them.

With Twitter, remember that unless your account is private (not a default setting) everything you post will be public. With that in mind, it is probably best if on your personal Twitter account you do not identify yourself as a teacher, name your school, or tweet anything that you would not want read back to you by your headteacher. Moreover, do not use your personal social media accounts to contact students. It blurs a line that schools attempt to keep very defined.

Facebook includes very detailed privacy settings which require attention. For example, it is possible for a user to consider their account private even though ordinary members of the public can access photos, read “wall” posts or status updates. Any of these could compromise your position.

Schools and social media

Bearing all this in mind we return to our original quandary: why use social media at all? For schools it can appear to be a minefield of problems. Yet the benefits for a school of having a social media presence can be compelling. Social media-savvy schools use Facebook and Twitter to “broadcast” information to students and parents.

Some use Facebook to “host” homepages so students and teachers can share information and links to websites, all the time maintaining control over content. Other forward-thinking schools have set up Twitter accounts that include relevant links for students or even information on coursework assignments. 

Before your school leaps into the social media sphere, though, it is best to fully consider whether it is right for you and, supposing you decide your school can benefit, what should it look like? Then it is the most important step of all: draft a social media policy. Your school’s IT policy may already address social media, although many pre-date Facebook or Twitter. Similarly, it is possible that your local authority has either issued or holds advice on schools and social media and this should be considered in any policy you drawn up by your school.

A vital step is that your school ensures the policy incorporates feedback from teachers and any other stakeholders. Once the policy has been drawn up, it should be approved by governors and, finally, be reviewed by the legal officer with responsibility for your school. All these measures help to focus minds and remind those who use social media of their responsibilities and the boundaries of its use. It also protects the school should the worst happen.

As always prevention is better than cure. Social media offers huge benefits to schools in terms of communicating with current students, future students and parents, and simplifying the world of online learning. It would be foolish for schools to ignore completely all these advantages. However, it would be equally foolish to use social media without a full, sound policy in place.

  • Susan Hall is a partner and social media expert at Cobbetts LLP. Visit www.cobbetts.com

Have you got a legal question?
In the coming months, SecEd and Cobbetts will be answering your legal questions. If you have an issue you want us to tackle, email editor@sec-ed.co.uk


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