The New York City Department of Education issued new guidelines this week that warn public schoolteachers against contacting their students via social networking websites. The city's code of conduct (PDF) stops short of banning online teacher-student communication altogether, acknowledging that social media can "serve as a powerful tool to enhance education," though it does advise educators to refrain from using their personal e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter accounts to interact with their students.
The guidelines also recommend that teachers adjust their privacy settings to hide personal information from students, while limiting school-related communication to dedicated professional pages. Education employees will have to obtain permission from their supervisors before setting up a professional Facebook page, and parents will be notified of any official page to which their child belongs. All school pages, moreover, will be cataloged and monitored by principals, who will be prompted to report any "questionable" activity. According to the city, teachers should "have no expectation of privacy" when it comes to professional social media use.
The policy makes no mention of monitoring teachers' personal Facebook or Twitter activity, though it does advise employees against accepting friend requests from students, and recommends that they remove any students with whom they are already friends. Neither teacher-to-teacher nor student-to-student communication are covered under the code, and unlike similar measures adopted across other school systems, New York City's guidelines do not govern communication via cellphone or text message.
The city's new policy comes in response to a recent spate of social media-related controversies and arrests, many of which involved alleged teacher-student romances. Schools chancellor Dennis M. Walcott hopes that his department's code will deter this behavior by drawing a clear delineation between personal and professional spheres, though teachers who fail to abide by the guidelines will face no explicit consequences. "These are strong recommendations," schools spokesman Matthew Mittenthal told the Wall Street Journal.
"[T]he lines between professional and personal endeavors are sometimes blurred… "
Teachers interviewed by the Journal largely described the policy as fair, though the New York Times reports that education employee unions haven't responded as kindly. Chiara Colletti, spokeswoman for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, described the guidelines as "overbroad," adding that principals may now be responsible for monitoring social media activities that are "almost impossible to monitor."
Darrell M. West, a vice president at the Brookings Institution, echoed Colletti's sentiment, saying that schools may be overreacting to a handful of isolated incidents. "It sounds like best practices on how to avoid getting sued, as opposed to thinking about how to use social media to broaden the learning experience," West told the Journal. "We all know there has been bad behavior enabled by social media, but we shouldn't make policy based on extreme cases."