ST. PETERSBURG — As is apparent recently, Twitter and Facebook can get people into a world of trouble.
To head off awkward situations where jobs may be lost, Pinellas County School Board members last week banned teachers from using social media tools to communicate with students.
They signed off on a policy requiring teachers to use district-provided e-mails and electronic platforms to correspond with students.
Board members started looking into this policy late last year, after teacher-related horror stories began to surface from around the state.
In the past few years, teachers from Hillsborough, Hernando and Manatee counties were forced to resign, suspended or arrested for inappropriate discussions or comments on Facebook and MySpace.
School districts grappled with this as well. Both Manatee and Santa Rosa stopped working on policies limiting how teachers use social media after teachers' unions threatened legal action.
To avoid that, Pinellas officials enlisted the help of union representatives in drafting the policy.
They approached it from a legal angle: Sites such as Facebook and Twitter could generate confidential records, and the district is legally responsible for maintaining or getting rid of them. These records could make teachers or the district look bad because they give "the appearance of inappropriate associations with students."
However, in a last-minute addition to the policy during Tuesday's School Board meeting, teachers will be allowed to use their personal cell phones to contact students in cases such as field trips.
Board member Linda Lerner raised the possibility of teachers facing an unwarranted penalty for using personal phones to contact students. "Sometimes, the teacher is responsible for students off school property," she said.
Her question launched a lengthy discussion about teachers being provided district cell phones during such trips.
"I'm sure that we have extra cell phones from the district. They can use those," board member Peggy O'Shea said. "They can borrow mine if they need to.
"How did we take field trips before cell phones?" she said.
Board members unanimously approved the policy, which goes into effect Aug. 15.