This article appeared in the Summer 2016 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

Before hitting “send,” consider the risks of communicating with a student through text messages or social media. The risks include investigation by the State Board for Educator Certification’s Professional Discipline Unit, an investigative warning recorded on an educator’s online credentials, sanctions that may include a reprimand recorded on an educator’s credentials, suspension of duties, and contract penalties, such as end-of-year termination for probationary contract teachers.

Texas Educators’ Code of Ethics

“The educator shall refrain from inappropriate communication with a student or minor.” (19 Tex. Admin. Code § 247.2, Standard 3.9) The prohibition covers all communications including cellphone, text, email, instant messaging, blogging and social media. “Inappropriate” refers to sexually explicit content; discussions of physical-sexual attractiveness, sexual activities, histories and desires; and messages construed as seeking a romantic relationship. 

Media have reported (in some cases sensationalized) the egregious misconduct of a tiny percentage of the state’s 480,000 aides, administrators and teachers.
Electronic devices and the internet provide the evidence used by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) to revoke the credentials of those few whose communications or actions rendered them unworthy (Standard 1.10) to instruct youth.

Is private really private on Facebook?

The Stored Communications Act (SCA) makes it an offense for a person acting without authorization or in excess thereof, to access a facility that provides electronic communication and obtain, alter or prevent access to a communication. A federal district court in New Jersey held that the SCA applied to a Facebook account created by a plaintiff named Ehling, a nurse-paramedic, because she elected to restrict access to her page to her friends and did not make her account public. 

Ehling’s employer, a hospital service corporation, terminated her for reasons that included a post to her Facebook wall that the corporation considered “deliberate disregard for patient safety.” In the post, Ehling chided paramedics for saving the life of a white supremacist who was shot after he killed a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Museum. Ehling also posted that the other guards should take target practice. 

The court held that although the SCA applied to her private Facebook page, her employer did not violate the Act; i.e., her employer did not access her Facebook page without authorization or in excess of authorization because one of her Facebook friends, also a Facebook user, downloaded the post and voluntarily presented it to a corporate supervisor.

Drawing the social networking boundary

Violations of the Code of Ethics regarding communications with students can occur even without extreme misconduct. According to Code of Ethics Standard 3.8, “[t]he educator shall
maintain appropriate professional educator-student relationships and boundaries based on a reasonably prudent educator standard.” Standard 3.9 gives SBEC the power to sanction credentials of educators whose communications are inappropriate based on the nature, purpose, timing, and amount of communication; its subject matter; and whether the educator attempted to conceal it. 

SBEC investigates and may sanction educators whose communications reveal nothing more than a violation of the boundary. SBEC’s vigilance reflects three propositions: (1) social media serve as a gateway to inappropriate educator-student relationships; (2) the ease of use and proliferation of social media give those with malicious intent more opportunity to identify and exploit vulnerable students; and (3) those raised on social media may not recognize the boundary. Given those beliefs, SBEC responds quickly when it has notice of educator-student communications that raise questions about an educator’s professionalism or intent.

Standard 3.8 recognizes that educators build educator-student relationships that enable learning, but in building that bond, even well-meaning teachers communicate in ways that blur or cross the line. In communication, that boundary takes shape in professional, academic conversations. “Probs,” “r u,” “hmu” (hit me up), “lol,” and emojis are not the root language of academic conversations; they do not model good grammar. “I love you, darlings,” even if directed to a group of high school students, does not create an effective boundary. Would an educator post personal, overly-familiar, intimate references about a student or the educator on a classroom wall? Parents question the motives of coaches and sponsors who text students late at night after games or tournaments. The educator-student boundary is not found in an educator’s and a student’s common experience (even jokingly expressed) with drug use, inebriation and partying. Standing alone or in the context of other communications and acts, those conversations can raise questions about an educator’s intent and trigger an investigation.

Some students invite educators to cross the boundary. A text might say, “lets hang out hmu.” The educator has the duty to clearly restate the boundary — “you’re not 18 yet,” or “we should talk” neither re-establish the boundary nor make clear a professional intent; “That is not appropriate,” does. 

District policies

The Code of Ethics does not prohibit educator-student social media interactions. School districts can; some do. If district policy prohibits social media interaction or limits its use, two risks exist: inappropriate communication violates both district policy and the Code of Ethics. 

A communication that does not violate the Code of Ethics may still violate local policy and justify contract or appraisal consequences. 

Think before hitting “send.” Even better, keep communication safe and don’t send at all.