Supervisory Union delays approval of stiff new social networking policy

ARLINGTON -- The Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union delayed approval of a social networking policy that prohibits online communication between students and staff.

A motion to approve the policy was rescinded Wednesday after the board learned principals and the district's attorney had yet to review the policy that has been in the works since last school year. The policy would be the first of its kind in the area putting restrictions on social networking sites including Facebook, Twitter and other sites that continue to increase in popularity both among children and adults.

In addition to many common sense points in the proposed policy -- such as obeying all laws, following confidentiality requirements, and refraining from defamation of character, to name a few -- it also looks to separate employees' personal and professional lives.

The policy cautions employees about the content they post on their personal Websites, although it does not prohibit positing items that may be deemed inappropriate by some. Instead, Superintendent Karen Gallese said, the policy is intended to be less restrictive of rights of employee on their personal time, but to distance that personal time from their professions.

Gallese said the four-page policy was drafted by BVSU's three-member Policy Committee and herself using other districts' policies as templates. Although, there are few examples of such a policy. Neighboring supervisory unions -- Southwest Vermont and Bennington-Rutland -- have Internet-use policies, but nothing specifically addressing social networking nor communication between students and staff outside of school.

A social networking policy was the idea of previous Superintendent Thomas Gallagher and the process began prior to Gallese's hire this summer. Gallese said she agrees there is a need for one with the intent to prohibit social networking at the schools and restrict personal or damaging information from being made public.

Part of the policy states "staff should never use or access social networking sites of pupils and should never accept an invitation to 'friend' a pupil."

Becoming Facebook "friends" with students or communicating with students through another media, the proposed policy says, "can be misconstrued as being part of a grooming process."

"I think for teachers this day in age, they need to protect themselves from that type of relationship with students. Particularly when teachers are putting up pictures of their personal lives and making comments with other friends. I just think they need to keep that private," Gallese said. "'Friending' students is a very fine line and a gray area, but to be on the safe side they should not be doing that."

Gallese acknowledged staff could run into problems with the policy when it comes to a teacher communicating with their child's friends online, or a younger relative, which the policy does not specifically provide an exception for.

The policy also suggests eliminating communication between staff and students outside of school. The policy states that staff should not include personal information on their social network sites such as addresses and phone numbers to "avoid the potential for pupils or their families or friends having access to staff outside of the school environment."

As a former principal, Gallese said she often gave her home phone number to students or parents, but she believes parents who need to contact a teacher should do so through the school.

"Particularly young teachers, they need to be made aware they need to keep that part of their life separate so they can have another part of their life," she said.

Another section of the proposed policy says staff "should not put any information onto the site that could identify either your profession or the school where you work." Gallese said if an employee posts something that may be found inappropriate the district does not want there to be an association with the school on the same page.

Gallese said the Arlington Teachers' Association signed off on the policy, which is also stated in the policy itself. Arlington's union President Brian Howe could not be reached Thursday.

School boards often look to the Vermont School Board Association when drafting policy, although VSBA Executive Director Stephen Dale said social networking is not a topic the organization has a recommended policy for. There are policies regarding Internet use and cyber-bullying, although neither address communication between faculty and students.

"We do not have a policy on social networking at this point. One of main reasons we have not put one out is because it is very much a moving target still with this world that is emerging around us," Dale said.

Similar to what the VSBA has drafted, SVSU and BRSU both have policies regarding proper use of the Internet by students and staff, although those policies do not address aspects of social networking either.

Frank Barnes, SVSU technology director, said a social networking policy has been on his radar and is something that will likely come forward before long because there is a need to have guidelines.

"We recently updated our Internet use policy, and in doing this it has made me realize there is some other Internet- or technology-related policies that need to be looked at," Barnes said.


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