The Ottumwa Courier

November 29, 2012

Teachers, students and Facebook: Districts begin setting policies for technology use by staff

MARK NEWMAN
Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Students are only supposed to use school computers for certain things. Now, teachers have a set of rules, too.

“We had a board policy for student technology use but nothing for staff use,” said Ottumwa Superintendent Davis Eidahl. “We talked to the Iowa School Board Association, looking at a policy that would establish some boundaries.”

The board approved the new policy this month, which Eidahl described as both a helpful yet flexible set of guidelines and rules.

“With Facebook and all the social media sites so popular, a student might think it’s neat to “friend” a school employee,” said Eidahl. “If a teacher has a personal ‘home’ account, then it is forbidden to communicate with and contact students. If there’s a circumstance we haven’t thought of, with permission from administration, then it could be acceptable. Or if there is a class site (Mr. Conner’s third-period math class), that’s different.”

So what was the spark behind the new policy?

“We’re [doing this] before any issues arise,” said Eidahl. “We don’t want to react to an issue; we want to get ahead of them.”

But for protecting students, teachers and the district, they also have to count on the good judgment of the staff they hire, he said. At the Oskaloosa school district, there’s also a type of policy in place, but employees are told to use common sense.

“With so many changes in technology, you’d be writing a new policy every three or four moths. However, some of these things are not written down but depend on common sense,” said Oskaloosa Superintendent Russ Reiter.

All employees, from teachers and custodians to principals and the superintendent, sign an acceptable use policy. So the superintendent would not expect to see a teacher doing their Christmas shopping on a school computer during class. And some sites are just blocked by district filtering systems, he said.

“We have the ability to monitor, and do monitor, computer use in school,” Reiter said.

And teachers, if making inappropriate use of technology, can be disciplined, he said.

Eidahl said he wants transparency in interactions between employees and the online world, or between employees and students.

“As far as using personal social media accounts to conduct school [business], there’s no transparency,” Eidahl explained.

“Again, we want them to use common sense,” said Reiter. “We have not necessarily said you can do this and [can’t] do that. We don’t have it down in policy, but we have unwritten rules not to friend students on [Facebook]. And we strongly encourage coaches not to send texts or emails to individual students.”

Some of those ideas cross district lines, though in Ottumwa, some of the rules have been written into policy, while others come under standard staff rules of behavior.

“Do not use private email to communicate with a student or a parent is in the policy,” said Eidahl. “What we’re asking of our coaches is to always have an administrator (principal, superintendent, athletic director) in your ‘group’ when contacting a student.”

Though not in the policy, that’s a rule when texting, too, Eidahl said. The district doesn’t demand control over each teacher’s cell phone. So rather than sending one of the runners on the track team an individual text telling her what time practice is, it’d be better for a coach to send it to the whole team. Or to the member and the principal.

And remember, he said, that school emails are legislated under the public information act. If you’d be uncomfortable with this particular message on the front page of the newspaper, then it’s probably not appropriate to send.

“The goal of our policy is to establish some boundaries,” Eidahl said. “If you use the [mental] filter that every email you send out is going to be read by many people, then you are going to use a little more wisdom. That’s the practice we encourage.”

That’s not to say technology is bad.

“With all it’s benefits, we don’t every want to discourage the use of technology,” Eidahl said. “We want to see it used responsibly and safely for everyone.”