UF study: Majority of Florida school districts lack social media policies for teachers

The lack of policies increases the potential for misuse and inappropriate teacher-student relationships, according to an educational scholar.
Jesse Gates

Jesse Gates

More than half of Florida’s school districts have no policy on the use of social media by teachers and other employees, increasing the potential for misuse and inappropriate teacher-student relationships online, according to an analysis conducted by a University of Florida educational leadership scholar.

Doctoral candidate Jesse Gates found that only 32 of the state’s 68 school districts had a dedicated social media policy, and none of the policies were comprehensive enough to adequately address all the key elements of Florida’s case law concerning public school employees’ use of social media. Gates’ research covered the primary school districts in all of Florida’s 67 counties, plus the Florida Virtual School, the state’s Internet-based public school.

The findings come at a time of a growing awareness of social media “misdeeds” by teachers, Gates writes in his dissertation research report, as evidenced by a rising trend of teacher firings and suspensions due to inappropriate communications on Facebook and other social media outlets.

Teachers have been punished for posting inappropriate photos, engaging in unprofessional online interactions with students and inflammatory blogs about supervisors and fellow teachers. In 2013, a South Florida high school teacher was arrested on charges of using Facebook to solicit sex from students ages 15 to 17.

Yet school districts have been slow to establish guidelines on what teachers can and can’t do on social networking sites.

While a social media policy isn’t an ironclad way to stop misdeeds, it would provide employees protection and a more focused idea of what behavior is allowed on social media, Gates said.

“Realistically, in extreme cases, it’s doubtful that a clear and concise social networking policy would have made a difference,” Gates said. “Many of the issues we read about in the papers really aren’t violations of a social media policy, per se, they are usually violations of the code of ethics. Social networking just makes it easier for a teacher to prey on students.”

Gates makes several recommendations to improve district policies, including clarifying key terminology, explaining freedom of speech limitations for public employees, specifying enforcement of the policy and relating the policy to the teacher code of conduct.

UF educational administration & policy Professor Craig Wood, Gates’ dissertation chair, said his work includes a sample social media policy based on current state statutes that could serve as a template for school districts’ development or improvement of their policies.

“In terms of public policy analysis and improving practices at the school board level it’s a valid piece of work,” Wood said.

Gates said courts have generally given public schools the responsibility to decide the line in balancing a public employee’s right to freedom of speech with their responsibilities as a public servant.

“This is a huge responsibility,” Gates said. “Social networking has made this conflict more prevalent.”

Currently, Gates is an assistant principal at an elementary school in St. Johns County. Last month he successfully defended his 145-page dissertation – “A Public Policy Analysis of Social Networking in Florida Public Schools” – and he will graduate in December with a doctorate in leadership in educational administration.

One of Gates’ specialties is the use of technology in instruction. In 2007, he was a finalist for teacher of the year in Georgia in part because of his use of a classroom website and an online grade book to communicate with parents.

Despite the challenges, Gates stops far short of advocating a ban on the use of social media. Studies have indicated that Facebook and other social media outlets can increase student engagement and improve cross-cultural collaboration and community building.

“When it comes to social networking and texting policies, I really do hate to see a complete ban on their use because studies have shown they can be beneficial to learning and engagement,” Gates said.

While his research didn’t include the use of texting, Gates said “clearly the potential for misdeeds with texts is similar to that of social networking.

“On the flip side, if used correctly and responsibly, texting parents and students homework assignments, reminder notes, and other classroom related news is a smart and effective way to communicate with the digital natives.”

   SOURCE: Jesse Gates, UF College of Education doctoral candidate, 678-925-5783; jgates@ufl.edu
   WRITER: Charles Boisseau, UF College of Education; 352-273-4449; cboisseau@coe.ufl.edu
   MEDIA LIAISON: Larry Lansford, communications director, UF College of Education; 352-273-4137; llansford@coe.ufl.edu