FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Texting and social media messages are quick and easy ways for teachers to communicate with their students outside the classroom. That technology is now leaving school districts trying to figure out how to best monitor that communication to keep it from becoming inappropriate.
“It’s a real mess for schools to be dealing with right now,” Richard Clapp, president and CEO of NEOLA, a school policy consulting company, said. “The advent of social media has created a real slippery slope for administrators to try to negotiate when they’re trying to protect kids from those who have non-healthy intentions.”
Terry Abbott, a former chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Education told 15 Finds Out he has the policy solution. He suggests districts should require all messages between teachers and students sent via text or social media be copied to a third person.
“I want to be involved. My daughter, at her age, I want to be involved in that conversation between her and her teacher.” – Lori Black, mother of 8th and 12th graders
“If you take away the secrecy, you take away that part of the problem,” Abbott said. “These electronic conversations begin with a school-related matter, but very quickly that conversation can turn into a sexually related conversation.”
Abbott is now chairman of Drive West Communications. That company tracked news reports in 2014 of teachers accused or convicted of sexual misconduct with students and found 782 reported cases. Of those, 38 percent involved social media.Full Report: Inappropriate Student Relationships by State with Gender Social Media Breakdown 2014
“There’s plenty of opportunity for school districts to use electronic communication in a safe way and districts ought to be looking quickly at that instead of allowing the private secret contact we have going on now,” Abbott said.
Abbott added that many states and districts, like New Jersey, Michigan, Texas and Colorado Springs, already have or are looking into putting restrictions on any one-to-one teacher-student messages.
“You’re walking a fine line,” Clapp said. “That’s exactly what Missouri was trying to do and it was struck down for First Amendment reasons. I think there would have to be some laws passed that would empower schools to be able to adopt such policies.”
Abbott said there should be a constitutional issue with keeping teachers from having private text conversations with students.
“A teacher has no First Amendment right to use electronics to sexually assault a child. Let them try all they want to say it’s a First Amendment violation. Our job is to protect those children who are not otherwise protected,” he said.
Right now in Indiana, there’s no law requiring districts to make policies that address electronic communication.
“I think a state law would be better,” Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-District 14) said.
Kruse, who is also chair of the Education and Career Development Committee, introduced a bill last year that would have required any electronic communication between a student and teacher to also be sent to parents and the school. Those messages would also have to be archived for at least two years. But, that bill never got a committee hearing.
“They thought it might be too invasive and too prescriptive and I think the schools wanted some flexibility. It was a pretty detailed bill and I personally like it,” Kruse said.
Kruse told 15 Finds Out that if he thinks the bill would get a hearing, he would introduce it again.
“I think that it would prevent these connections which sometimes turn into affairs. I think it would nip it in the bud. You can’t stop personal interactions in school buildings, but a certain number of these start on the Internet and this would nix that,” he said.
While districts aren’t required to have certain social media policies by law, Director of School Building Physical Security and Safety for the Indiana Department of Education David Woodward said the D.O.E. does do a lot of teacher training.
“What we’re really talking about is culture. You can have policies, but you have to have culture to go with it,” Woodward said. “If you create a culture where we can still be colleagues and hold one another accountable, I think that goes a lot farther than something in writing.”
Woodward said every district has a school safety specialist who goes to the training.
“We talk about things for their staff to consider. Here are ways students are communicating that we may have no idea about. In that regard, we’re ahead of the curve,” he said.
The Department of Education is also currently working with the Indiana State Police and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to make a series of training videos that will teach teachers the basic red flags.
“A lot of times what happens is after there’s a predatory situation, people will say, ‘Well, I saw this person communicating with them after hours. I saw this person giving them gifts. I saw this person working with them alone or giving them rides.’ Those are all red flags,” Woodward said. “The problem is educators don’t know the red flags because they haven’t had the training. A lot of times you’ll see things and you’ll trust the person more than your policy and what we need to do is get past that.”
Woodward hopes that new training series will roll out later this spring.Technology could be the solution:
While district policies vary, some teachers are taking student communication solutions into their own hands.
Emma Black, an eighth grader at Jefferson Middle School, gets homework reminder texts from her Language Arts teacher.
“I do like texting better [than district Internet portals] because it’s on my phone and if I do forget my homework I can just look at my texts and see it there,” she said.
Her mom, Lori, who is an administrative assistant at WANE-TV, gets the same texts.
“I love it. I get to see all the text messages my daughter sees,” she said. “I want to be involved. My daughter, at her age, I want to be involved in that conversation between her and her teacher.”
Emma’s teacher uses a program called Remind. The free app allows teachers to send messages to students and parents while keeping their phone numbers private. The company said there are also user reporting tools that allow students, teachers, or parents to flag messages. There’s also a message log.
Fort Wayne Community Schools doesn’t require its schools or teachers to use Remind, but a district spokeswoman said many do. Remind said it has 35 million users in more than half of the K-12 schools in the United States.
“It will say the homework for the night and what we did that day for the parents,” Emma said.
It’s not quite a regular text, though. Unless the teachers enable two-way communication the students and parents can’t always respond back. Teachers can choose to send out announcement messages or allow two-way messaging.
“It’s just more protection for your kids and the society we live in, your kids need as much protection as they can get,” Lori said.