Texas school districts have employment policies that regulate educator use of electronic media and social networking sites. The Educator’s Code of Ethics also imposes limitations on such communications, which means that the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) can impose disciplinary action on the teaching certificates of those who do not utilize these tools in a professional and appropriate manner.

Teachers can appropriately use technology to engage and interact with students, but should take steps to ensure that professional boundaries are observed in the process.

Same standards of conduct apply

One prevailing theme among district policies is that educators are being held to the same standards of conduct in their use of electronic media and social networking as they would for any other public communication.

If a teacher would be subject to disciplinary action for making an unprofessional comment to another teacher in the hallway during school hours under the district’s current standards of conduct, that teacher might also be subject to disciplinary action for making the same statement on Facebook or Twitter.

A teacher might also be accountable for comments and links posted by others on a profile page and is expected to maintain privacy settings appropriate to the content.

Personal versus professional use of social media

District policies should draw a distinction between professional and personal use of electronic media and social networking. They can do this by specifying that the restrictions do not apply to the extent that a teacher has a social or family relationship with a student.

This means that teachers may communicate with their own children and their children’s friends using personal social networking sites, but may not do so with current or former students with whom there is no separate social relationship.

All communications with students or minors must be professional and appropriate within the context of a teacher/student relationship.

Using social media to connect with students/parents the right way

An educator who would like to use social networking to communicate with students may want to create a separate professional page or profile for that purpose. If you do so:

  • Obtain the consent of your immediate supervisor first.
  • Allow parents and administrators to access the page as well as students.
  • Visit the page or profile often and maintain it to ensure the content remains appropriate and complies with local board policies and laws related to copyright and privacy of student information.

When does a district policy infringe on teachers' rights?

Policies that place restrictions on communications with students or an employee’s online persona may infringe on constitutionally protected rights, such as freedom of speech, association and a right to privacy.

For example, a content-based policy that restricts a teacher’s ability to speak on matters of public concern could violate the right to free speech, while a policy that prevents a teacher from communicating with family members could violate the right to freedom of association.

Texting

Districts may also place limitations on an educator’s ability to send text messages to students by adopting policies that designate specific individuals who may send text messages to students and placing time limitations on when educators may communicate with students.

Remembering your role

All teachers should be mindful that school districts, SBEC and their communities expect them to serve as role models to students and minors. All communications with students or minors, whether online or face-to-face, should be professional and appropriate.

Any information you post will be available to parents, administrators, students and the community-at-large, no matter how securely the privacy settings are configured.

TCTA members with questions about these issues may call the TCTA Legal Department at 888-879-8282.