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Tampa Bay schools wrestle with role of social media

Imagine being in a room with half a billion chatting people, but not being sure who you're allowed to talk with.

That's the dilemma facing Florida teachers and schoolchildren as districts grapple with the challenges of bringing Facebook and other social media sites into the classroom.

One district has already tried to ban such communication. Others like Pinellas have opted for guidelines rather than outright prohibitions. And this winter Hillsborough will move to adopt a completely protected, in-house social networking site.

"Unfortunately in the world we are in now, social networking could be problematic for teachers," said Marshall Ogletree, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

Experts call social media the 21st century equivalent of a good library, and say schools ignore it at their peril.

"My kids are following political figures on Twitter, they're connecting with experts in various fields," said Joyce Valenza, a Pennsylvania school media specialist and author who blogs about educational technology. "I feel really bad for students in districts that have blocked these tools. Because for me, this is the intellectual freedom issue of our decade."

But the potential for trouble is real.

In Hillsborough last year, a Plant City High School teacher resigned after being confronted with sexually charged messages she'd sent to a male student on Facebook. The year before in Hernando, a band coach with a history of inappropriate MySpace messages was later arrested on charges of having sexual activity with a minor.

Faced with such problems, districts are searching for policies that walk a fine line — allowing students and teachers to enjoy the benefits of social media while preventing abuses.

In a draft policy, Pinellas asks teachers to use district-approved platforms like e-mail and Moodle, an electronic learning tool, to communicate with students.

The draft also warns that social networking sites and cell phone texting may transform private communications into public information, and teachers communicating with students could face legal problems and "increased risk of inappropriate association with students."

So far, teachers in Pinellas have expressed few objections.

It protects teachers from both legal trouble and students acting out, said Carole Robinson, a biology teacher at Dunedin High. "I think it's a good safeguard."

Some Hillsborough administrators say they have counseled their teachers to also stay on district websites or e-mail.

"I don't tell my teachers that they cannot use Facebook, but I strongly discourage it," said Tiffany Ewell, an assistant principal at Strawberry Crest High School.

They may soon get the best of both worlds. Hillsborough's new social networking site "has the functionality of a Facebook, but does not have some of the dangers that we all read about," said Hillsborough schools spokesman Stephen Hegarty.

For example, anonymous comments will be prohibited. Participants must be invited to join online communities, but parents will be given access to whatever their children see.

"So they can see what the interaction is between student and teacher," Hegarty said.

Things haven't gone nearly so smoothly in Manatee County, which proposed banning teachers from communicating with students without parent consent, and forbidding them from making unflattering comments about the district. The district withdrew the plan after its teachers union threatened legal action.

"We would prefer the district make modifications that don't intrude into people's constitutional rights," said Pat Barber, president of the Manatee Education Association, voicing concern over teachers' freedom of speech. "We'd also want clear definitions and some negotiations over what penalties could be imposed on people."

Earlier this year, a Manatee teacher was suspended without pay for five days after he complained on Facebook about how much he hates his job and students. Another teacher was accused of being "friends" with more than 100 students on the same site.

Manatee School Board attorney John Bowen said the district has every right to know that teachers' private behavior meets professional ethical standards.

"We're not saying you can't use it, I don't think that would be sustainable," he said. "When using social networks, you have to recognize there are rules you must conform to. If you don't, you can be subjected to discipline."

Barber, the union president, said the Florida Administrative Code already includes a set of professional codes on how teachers and other public employees should act.

"We're pretty sure another policy is not necessary," she said.

But Valenza, who runs the library at Springfield (Pa.) Township High School and blogs for the school library journal, says arguments about bad behavior between teachers and students are missing the point.

"Unfortunately, that has happened in face-to-face relations as well," she said, referring to inappropriate relationships. "Should we ban conversations?"

At her school, teachers sign a policy statement governing their actions online. Students are evaluated and graded on their behavior, too, and parents sign an Internet "opt-out" form if they don't want their children to participate in what she called a "wonderful learning experience."

"Our (nation's) president is putting his content on YouTube," Valenza said.

Tampa Bay schools wrestle with role of social media 01/31/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 2, 2011 5:33pm]

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