District One board mulls over social Internet policy

It was business as usual at the Big Horn County School District No. One school board meeting on Jan. 8 until Policy File IJNDC came up for vote regarding the district’s policy regarding employee use of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

InternetThe policy calls for staff members who engage in social media activities to maintain separate professional and personal email addresses. It also limits contact with students via social media sites, prohibiting employees from listing students as “friends” on networking sites. It prohibits employees, including teachers and coaches, from contacting students through electronic means like texting and mandates that they use only the district’s email and telephone system. It prohibits employees from contacting individual students apart from a group text or email and prohibits giving private cell or home phone numbers to students without prior approval of the district. The policy also sets rules concerning district-sponsored social media activity.

The proposed policy was recommended by the district’s attorney, Tracy Copenhaver with an eye toward limiting individual contact with students and the potential liability that could accompany those activities.

“I know there are staff members right now who would be in violation of the policy because they use Facebook quite frequently,” said District One Supt. Shon Hocker. “On an individual level, that is not recommended by the policy. Group emails, group phone calls, group texts, group information that, let’s say, the whole basketball team gets a message to tell them to get on the bus at a certain time or whatever, that’s acceptable. Where this is a recommendation by our attorney, we feel it’s a policy we can endorse and share with our staff.”

Board member Brett Crosby expressed concern that the policy would be complicated by the fact that in the small communities the district serves students that often have relationships with staff that go beyond the school. He also pointed out that there is so much interaction that it would be impossible for the district to monitor every single text message.

“We have to walk this line between protecting our children and protecting our students and on the other hand we have people who are really making a huge difference in students’ lives through these interactions,” said Crosby.

“With a small community we have a lot of people who are employees who are also relatives. Actually, it’s not just relatives, it’s church groups, too. We’ve got people who are just flat-out family friends that go back generations,” said Crosby. “This is a small community, so I’m not sure how we would make allowances for stuff like that.”

Hocker said, “the relative piece is addressed” in the policy and states that there might be “appropriate” relationships for this kind of conduct, implying that they would be analyzed on a case-by-case basis.

Board Chairman Dave Monk agreed that there are going to be some “sticky areas” in the policy and other members expressed their concern, too.

Hocker noted that “if push came to shove it would not be relatives who took the district to court.” He said he felt the policy was written in a way that was “vague enough to include family members and other appropriate relationships.”

The board voted the policy down on the first reading after a lengthy discussion of its pros and cons, but discussion indicated that they planned to revisit the issue again at a future school board meeting. The date of the meeting was not specified.

By Patti Carpenter