Legal Brief

Teachers and Students Just Can't Be 'Friends'
By V. WAYNE YOUNG/School Administrator, April 2018

I RECENTLY RECEIVED a question from a superintendent about an Instagram chat one of his staff members had initiated with a student in the school district. It was brought to the superintendent’s attention by the student’s mother. The chat had been ongoing for several weeks and ended with “I better not text you anymore. I might send something bad.”

The teacher already had: “I miss you.”

Escalating Frequency
Sadly, the stories of teachers having inappropriate relationships with students now seem to be a regular occurrence. My cursory search for news accounts nationwide led to 12 such reports of teacher sexual misconduct with students over a recent two-month period.

Still, these incidents are relatively rare. Far more common are the precursors to these crimes — the flirtatious, lewd or otherwise unprofessional and unseemly communications between teachers — and sometimes administrators — and their students. As a school lawyer for 30 years, I’ve seen this behavior from time to time, but it arises much more frequently now due to the ubiquitous use of social media by adults and students.

These communications often start out innocently enough. Teachers and administrators want and need open lines of communications with students. It’s generally a positive thing for school culture and effective learning support. And social media is how students communicate.

But when the lines get blurred between personal and professional roles, trouble soon follows. There is no valid reason for school staff to discuss private, personal issues or counsel students online; to communicate dozens of times at odd hours; or to engage in conversations that involve discussions of sex, substance abuse, off-color humor or other inappropriate subject matter.

Sensible Safeguards
No universal solution or foolproof preventative measure exists to eliminate social media misconduct by school staff. Some states have attempted to ban social media contact entirely between students and educators — with a notorious lack of success. It is nearly impossible to enforce, and it flies in the face of embracing the use of technology as an instructional tool.

But school leaders should consider adopting specific policies aimed at regulating social media contact between staff and students.

Consider the following principles when crafting a policy for communicating through social media:

» All social media communications between staff and students must be related to school activities only — coursework, school events, athletic activities, etc.;

» All social media communications between staff and students must include another adult (parent, other school staff, etc.);

» Staff members are prohibited from “friending” or otherwise connecting with individual students on social media sites or platforms;

» Unsolicited communications from students that do not relate to legitimate school matters must be reported to superiors in the district;

» Staff use of social media for personal communications unrelated to their employment must be kept completely separate from employment-related social media use;

» Texting with students is discouraged except when absolutely necessary and should always include third-party adults;

» Social media posts intended for students should be formal and professional in tone and language and should not include photos or images unrelated to the professional pur-pose of the communication; and

» Social media communications may never include confidential information about other students or staff.

A Disciplinary Basis
This is not an exhaustive list, and these measures will not prevent all inappropriate contact between school staff and students. But they will provide a basis for discipline of staff when they are violated.

WAYNE YOUNG is executive director and legal counsel for the Kentucky Association of School Administrators in Frankfort, Ky.