This article appeared in the Summer 2018 edition of The Classroom Teacher.

A teacher’s certification was revoked after he accidentally uploaded pornographic images to a shared district drive. A principal was terminated after a naked selfie was hacked off her phone and distributed to students.

Most Americans own a smartphone of some kind, and most also own a desktop computer, laptop or tablet. Those devices contain a vast amount of personal information, including pictures, private communications and records of online activity. But private information that is stored on a device can impact a teacher’s professional life when that information is stolen, shared or viewed by others. What steps should a teacher take to ensure that private information remains private?

Educators can be subject to disciplinary action, in certain circumstances, for private conduct.

Texas law has long acknowledged that a teacher can be nonrenewed, terminated or subject to certification sanction for conduct that occurs in private life, if such conduct impedes the teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom or demonstrates that the teacher is generally unworthy to instruct or supervise youth. Most districts have adopted policies related to employees’ use of electronic media, which includes their presence on social media. Those policies generally state that employees are held to the same professional standards in their public use of electronic media as they are for any other public conduct. If employees’ use of electronic media violates law or policy, or interferes with their ability to effectively perform their job, employees may be subject to disciplinary action. This is true even when the initial use of the media was intended to be private, but became public for some reason that was unforeseen at the time. 

Educators should not use school-issued technology for personal matters, even when such use is permitted by policy. 

Many educators have devices that were issued by their school district. They use these devices for school district business, but sometimes use them for personal matters. Most districts allow a reasonable personal use of school district technology in their Acceptable Use policies, so this personal use is not necessarily prohibited. However, educators who possess school-issued technology should comply with district policy related to use of electronic media with respect to any interaction they have with that technology and should be aware that any information contained on that equipment is subject to review by the school district. This means that an educator should not use technology issued by the school district for any purpose that is not consistent with the professional standards expected in a school setting.

The State Board for Educator Certification recently considered a complaint against a teacher who failed to meet this requirement. In that case, the teacher was in possession of a school-issued MacBook. The server at the school linked all individuals with MacBooks. Unsecured folders would be created from the linked data and could be accessed by anyone with a MacBook, including students. The teacher uploaded several pornographic images onto the MacBook in his possession. Those images were subsequently transferred to all linked MacBooks on the network and were accessed by a student. The teacher resigned from his position and his certification was revoked. Although the teacher had not deliberately permitted students to access pornographic images, his use of school-issued technology for that purpose had compromised what would otherwise be private information. 

Educators can be subject to disciplinary action even when the release of private information is not deliberate. 

The commissioner of education recently considered an appeal for a principal whose contract was terminated after a hacker obtained a nude selfie on her phone and disseminated it to students. The school district argued that the principal’s contract could be terminated because the discussion and controversy resulting from the photo’s release reduced her effectiveness as a principal. An independent hearing examiner initially ruled in favor of the principal, finding that she should not be held accountable for the actions of a third party. However, the board of trustees voted to terminate the contract anyway, concluding that the principal’s use of electronic media had impaired her ability to perform her job. The principal appealed to the commissioner of education, who upheld the termination, finding that the actions of a third party could create good cause to terminate an employment contract if those actions impacted the employee’s ability to perform an essential function of their job. 

This decision has significant ramifications for educators because it means that adverse employment and certification action can occur if private information is wrongfully obtained and disseminated by a third party. This opens up the possibility for disgruntled exes, hackers and other maliciously motivated individuals to do very real damage to an educator’s career if they come into possession of personally sensitive data. 

What should an educator do to protect personal information online?

The security and integrity of information stored online can never be absolutely guaranteed. Educators should operate under the assumption that their online lives and data stored on their devices in the form of pictures, videos and messages might one day be made public and should conduct their practices accordingly. 

To the extent that personal information is stored on a device, it should be clearly delineated and separated from data prepared in the scope of employment. Limit the use of the same device for work and private communications. Do not store pictures intended for use in a classroom presentation on the same device where vacation pictures are stored. Avoid charging personal devices on school district devices and do not permit a personal device to “sync” with a school district network. Finally, install appropriate safeguards, such as strong passwords, to protect the security of all devices. 

Release of sensitive personal data to the public can destroy careers and reputations. This area of the law continues to evolve, but prudence and discretion online as well as in real life is the best protection.