Should teachers be friends with their students on Facebook?

One Utah teacher's personal MySpace page included links to Web sites about homosexual groups.

Another used her MySpace page to complain about students and parents.

A third Utah teacher included pictures of herself drinking.

Were these teachers practicing freedom of speech and expression during their off hours or did they cross a line professionally? In the relatively new realm of social networking, many such questions fall into a gray area. Most Utah school districts don't have specific policies addressing how teachers, in their free time, may or may not use social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and personal blogs. State educator standards require teachers act as role models and maintain appropriate contact with students, but the standards don't define exactly what those terms mean.

Some teachers use social networking as an instructional tool, but it can also be a minefield when used by educators in their personal lives. Like many technologies, it has the potential for both good and bad, experts say.

"Teachers are held to a higher standard to be role models for students," said Cindy Carroll, director of the Utah Education Association (UEA) affiliated Jordan UniServ, which provides services to teachers. She recently led a social networking workshop for teachers at the UEA's annual convention. "One person's idea of what a role model should be and a person's personal life and rights do clash."

Some inappropriate uses of social networking sites for teachers are obvious: posting pictures of illegal activities, pornography, using the sites to sexually pursue students. The tougher areas are those in between. Should teachers be friends with their students on Facebook? Can they use curse words on their personal pages? Should they post political views?

Vanessa Martinez, a fifth-grade teacher at James Madison Elementary in Ogden, said she tries to project the same image on Facebook as she does in public. And she always turns down students' requests to be her friend on the site.

"You just do the same things on social networks as you would do in real life," Martinez said.

Mark Nuetzel, a math and science teacher at Redeemer Lutheran school in Salt Lake City, said he also refuses students' requests to friend him on Facebook.

"Your relationship is not one of friends, but you're the teacher and they're the student," Nuetzel said.

Many students say they would never want to be friends with their teachers on Facebook anyway.

"It's weird when teachers are friends with their students on Facebook," said Brooke Blaisdell, a junior at Salt Lake City's Highland High.

"They don't need to know all the details of my life," said Hailey Goates, also a junior at Highland.

Carol Lear, an attorney with the State Office of Education and executive secretary of the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission, said teachers can get in trouble if they post inappropriate materials and allow their students to see them. She likened it to teachers having racy magazines in their homes. It's not usually a problem unless a teacher invites his students into his home to see them, she said. She said she recommends teachers set their pages to private so others can only see them with their approval.

"As long as the teacher can show she's been cautious and responsible in terms of protecting the privacy of a page, then I think she should have the right to have a Facebook page," Lear said. But teachers must still be careful about what they post because nothing is truly private on the Internet, Carroll said.

Lear said, so far, the state commission, which can recommend pulling or suspending teaching licenses, hasn't so far seen a lot of social networking cases. She said the teacher who complained about students and parents on a personal page was reprimanded with a sort of temporary mark on the teacher's file. When another teacher got a DUI, the commission looked at her personal page and found pictures of her drinking with people who appeared to be underage, which spoke to the issue of "questionable professional judgment," Lear said.

Cal Evans, a Jordan assistant superintendent, said he once had to ask a teacher to take a semi-nude picture off a Facebook page after a parent complained.

"The thing is kids look at these things," Evans said. "It just puts teachers in vulnerable positions."

He also said, however, that social networking can be a great tool for teachers. Many teachers belong to sites for educators where they can share information with other teachers from across the country.

David Doty, Canyons district superintendent, for example, said that when controversy arose over a recent speech by President Barack Obama to school children, he used Twitter to share strategies with superintendents from across the country. He also uses Twitter to stay connected to more schools, see what parents are thinking and praise employees more often.

He also acknowledged, however, that social networking can have its dangers. He doesn't think school employees should become friends with students on Facebook.

"Technology is evolving and the law has not kept pace with that evolution," he said. "The amount of gray area is growing every year."

He said he hopes his district can develop a policy within the next year describing how teachers can use social networking in productive, responsible ways.

"These tools are here to stay," Doty said, "whether people like it or not."
What is online social networking?

Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are all forms of social networking, ways people connect to one another and express themselves online. Twitter allows users to post messages in 140 characters or less. Facebook and MySpace allow users to create extensive profiles, post pictures and videos and communicate online. Here are more facts about the sites:

  • Facebook has more than 300 million active users.
  • The average Facebook user has 130 friends on the site.
  • Facebook users upload more than 2 billion photos to the site each month.
  • MySpace has nearly 125 million monthly active users.
  • 60 percent of Twitter's Web traffic comes from outside the U.S.
 SOURCE:  Salt Lake Tribune

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