Terminating teachers for violations of social media policies

By Steve Adams

The termination of a New Hampshire teacher for refusing to “un-friend” students on Facebook highlights the boundary line between teachers and students, and reminds us that schools need to address 21st century forms of communication in their policies regulating the conduct of all members of the school community.

The New Hampshire school fired the longtime substitute teacher when she refused to “unfriend” her students after the school changed its social media policy to forbid teachers from being friends with students on Facebook. The popular 79-year-old teacher says she uses her Facebook page to stay in touch with current and former students.

Even if, as the New Hampshire teacher claims, the communications are safe and respectful, connections through social networking sites can nonetheless foster an informality and familiarity that could potentially undermine a teacher’s ability to maintain respect and control of student behavior in the classroom.

A Rhode Island statute (R.I.G.L. § 16-12-3) reflects this fundamental nature of the teacher-student relationship, namely, that teachers have a duty to “implant and cultivate in the minds of all children committed to his or her care the principles of morality and virtue.”

The fundamental purpose of a policy barring teachers from connecting with students through Facebook, Twitter and other social networking channels or electronic media is to foster and maintain student respect for teachers as adults and authority figures within the school context. Interacting with a student as a “friend” may jeopardize a teacher’s credibility as a person charged with maintaining discipline and appropriate behavior in the classroom.

In more extreme cases, social media connections could signal inappropriate interactions or an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and student.

Any policy or procedure concerning social media should be clear in scope. A strictly phrased rule (e.g., “teachers are barred from becoming a Facebook friend with a student, or following a student on Twitter”) avoids uncertainties on where to draw the line as to what is or isn’t appropriate student-teacher social media communications.

Having a policy in place is important because it provides “fair warning” to teachers that a violation of the policy is grounds for termination. This will strengthen a school’s position should a teacher challenge the termination.

Steve is administrative partner in the Providence office of Barton Gilman, where he focuses his practice on advising education institutions and handling a wide range of civil litigation matters.