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Elkhart Community Schools' Facebook page is shown on Monday, Dec. 2. The school corporation is looking at helping groups within the school — like an athletic team — communicate with students using social media. (Photo Supplied)
School corporation considers new social media policy

Posted on Dec. 2, 2013 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on Dec. 2, 2013 at 4:04 p.m.

ELKHART — How should teachers and coaches use social media to communicate with students?

One local school corporation is working on figuring that out.

The Elkhart School Board is considering a new policy that details what employees can and cannot do with Facebook, Twitter and similar services. Rather than banning use of social media altogether, the corporation is setting up guidelines to help employees use it effectively and appropriately.

This new policy, said Elkhart schools spokesperson Shawn Hannonn, will be the first of its kind for the school system if it is approved.

“We are recognizing that many families do use social media, and there's a desire to communicate,” Hannon said.

Doug Thorne, director of personnel and legal services, said that the corporation has not had a significant problem with employees using social media inappropriately.

But, he said, “social media is here to stay and it's important to provide guidance and direction for employees on how to use it.”

Elkhart, like many other local school systems, has a policy that addresses professional boundaries between employees and students.

That policy says that it's a violation of professional boundaries to use “email, text messaging, online social networks, instant messaging, or other means of electronic communication to discuss with a student a matter that does not pertain to the student's homework, class activity, school club, or other school sponsored activity.”

But that doesn't cover some details. Hannon said that an increasing number of school groups, such as a particular classroom or athletic team, have been interested in starting their own social media account. These accounts could be used to communicate with students taking a particular class, or members of a team or club.

Some of these accounts, like the Elkhart Central Blazer Brigade Facebook page, already exist.

The proposed social media policy says that school employees who start a school-related social media account must get it approved by their building principal.

“We are trying to avoid a page being started, then not monitored, then communication is happening that teachers are not aware of,” Hannon said. “This policy lays out a much more formal plan for keeping track of school related social media accounts.”

If the new policy is approved, these already existing accounts will be under the same rules as any newly created account.

In a recent school board meeting, Superintendent Rob Haworth said that a new policy is needed to ensure that accurate information is presented to the community.

“It will be tough to craft a policy, but I think this is where we need to be,” he said.

The proposed policy also addresses school employees' use of social media on their own time.

It says that social media users may view school employees as representatives of Elkhart Community Schools. To that end, employees are encouraged to “be thoughtful” when posting an opinion or endorsing a political candidate online.

The policy also says that school employees cannot communicate with students through a personal social media account except in certain circumstances.

Those circumstances are: if the employee has a family relationship with the student or if the student's parents approve of the relationship; if there is an emergency situation; or if the employee has written approval from the director of personnel services.

Hannon said that the definition of social media in the new policy is “somewhat broad.”

“When people hear social media, they think Facebook and Twitter,” she said. “But the idea is that the policy is broad enough that in three years, as different trends emerge, the policy will hold true and still apply.”

The board will vote on this policy in its next meeting on Dec. 10.

Hannon said that if the policy is approved, administration will go out and talk to teachers about it.

“The idea is to invite people and let them come, ask questions, and get clarification,” she said. “Simply having a policy in a policy book isn't effective unless we are open about the intent.”