Board finalizes policy on teacher-student communication

Feb. 18, 2009

School Board members voted Feb. 10 to finalize a policy banning communication between Elmbrook staff and students on social networking Web sites and instant messaging services, after deciding against a much more restrictive policy.

Chris Thompson, the district's chief information officer, said it would be impossible for Elmbrook to provide adequate oversight of services like Facebook.

"There is absolutely no reason that any teacher right now should be on Facebook with their students," Thompson said. "You cannot control it."

Thompson has previously said the district plans to have an educational equivalent to Facebook and Myspace in coming years, in addition to its current Web-based offerings like e-mail, Infinite Campus and Blackboard.

The approved rule, essentially bans "personal communication via nondistrict-sponsored applications/devices between staff and students, including, but not limited to, the use of social networking sites and instant messaging."

Board Member Tom Gehl, who has supported the policy since it was introduced in November, said the district's current communication tools are sufficient.

"I think there are more than adequate avenues of communication available to everyone, such that we can draw the line here and not be Draconian or overly restrictive," Gehl said.

Text messages not banned

The approved policy does not directly outlaw communication between staff and students via cell phone text messaging, a key difference from earlier versions.

Those in favor of allowing text messaging between teachers and students said it serves as a valuable communication tool during field trips or extracurricular tournaments.

Those who wanted texting banned said the technology is too easily abused and difficult to police.

Carolyn Schamberger, a spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless, said in November that the district would have to follow a legal process to obtain text message records from privately owned phones.

She added that Verizon doesn't keep a long-term archive of text messages.

"In terms of text messaging, we don't hold onto those (archives) very long," Schamberger said, "just simply because we have over 70 million customers and it wouldn't be feasible to do so."

More restrictive policy defeated

Thompson and Gehl both supported a broader, more restrictive version of the policy, which would have banned district staff from using text messaging, instant messaging and social networking altogether, even personally while off the clock.

Social networking services are implicitly interconnected, and Thompson argued that unintentional communication between student and staff members could too easily occur.

"There are a million different uses of Facebook, and many of them are legitimate," Thompson said, "…but you're putting yourself out there, and it's a risk."

Board member Meg Wartman spoke out against the more restrictive version.

"Just to say, (as a) blanket approach, that if you text somebody, you're irresponsible - I just can't support saying that."

Throughout discussion the policy's language loosened considerably, resulting in its final version.

Enforcement questioned

Some board members questioned the policy's effectiveness, suggesting that many staff members will break the rule.

Superintendent Matt Gibson said the district should still take an official stance on the issue. Elmbrook is "not equipped" to be responsible for inappropriate use of technology, he said. Greater supervision and control means less liability.

"For the district to legitimize it means the district is responsible for it," Gibson said.

Gehl said he agreed.

"Laws are passed with the full realization they'll be broken the next day," Gehl said. "But that's not a reason not to pass them."

Isral DeBruin can be reached at (262) 446-6608.

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