Legal Brief

Setting Rules for Teacher-Student Texting?
By DAVID B. RUBIN/School Administrator, August 2019

Is it acceptable for teachers and students to text each other? We know from decades of research there is a beneficial impact on academic performance when teachers are more available to their students. Yet a rising number of school districts have found themselves mired in scandal as one predatory teacher after another is prosecuted for illicit acts that started off innocently enough with texting but led to sexual encounters.

Education leaders are wrestling with the legal and policy implications of this behavior. Some school boards have imposed a blanket prohibition against staff texting to individual students. Others let staff and students use their own judgment.
Recently, a Connecticut high school student made headlines by asking her district to repeal a texting ban so students could reach their teachers with last-minute questions about course assignments. Board members reacted cautiously, fearful that a change in policy would create unjustified expectations that teachers are accessible 24/7 and might invite inappropriate conversations. Their debate points up the competing interests at stake.

Legal Twilight
School officials face several challenges in confronting the issue. By and large, legislatures and the courts have offered little definitive guidance on the legal parameters for this sort of activity. This is not surprising as the law typically lags behind society in addressing social issues, and until adults reach consensus on what constitutes acceptable texting, we can’t expect the law to define acceptable norms for our kids.

Texting also has more potential for abuse than Facebook and other social media because it is so instantly accessible and private.

Constitutional due process requires fair notice of ground rules before government agencies can enforce them, and districts should develop a legal framework for regulating the use of this technology. A national standard, or even a statewide one, is likely unworkable because acceptable boundaries for teacher-student relationships have varied from one community to another since well before the digital age.

In towns where teaching staff tend to live locally, teachers also might be students’ “rec” sports coach, a neighbor or relative with perfectly innocent reasons to be texting them after hours. In other communities where teachers commute greater distances to work, chances are there would be less reason for contact with students outside of school. A one-size-fits-all solution is not wise or practical.

In relatively small New Jersey, where I practice school law, nearly 600 school districts exist, and attitudes around teacher-student relationships differ greatly, even between districts next door to each other. Our state legislature recognized that when it passed a law several years ago requiring all districts to adopt written policies addressing electronic communication between school employees and students. The law does not dictate what those rules should be, but it allows each district to determine its own standards to prevent improper communications between staff and students by texting, e-mail, cellphone calls and social media. This has forced districts to have a conversation with stakeholders in the school community to map out the boundaries of acceptable teacher-student contacts.

Multiple Questions
Is it appropriate for teachers and students to have each other’s personal cellphone numbers? Should after-hours texting be limited to sports coaches or counselors who ordinarily would be interacting with students after school or on weekends? Should communications be limited to certain topics?

These questions are answered differently from one school district to the next, but the final result should reflect the values of that community and guide all parties on what is expected. Because these expectations are developed locally and not mandated by the state, individual districts can revise their policies whenever community attitudes change.

Search the internet for “teacher texting scandals” and you’ll be convinced that a clearly worded texting policy tailored to your district’s particular needs, with input from your legal counsel, is far preferable to letting staff and students figure it out for themselves.

DAVID RUBIN is of counsel to the Busch Law Group in Metuchen, N.J. Twitter: @dbresqnj