Michael D. Clark reports:
When classroom doors open next month so will the gates of opportunity for improper teacher social media contact with students.
This week’s news that a Lakota teacher had inappropriate and sexually oriented communications with some students should remind parents to be vigilant in monitoring their kids’ social media activities with teachers, experts say.
“As a parent it’s your responsibility to monitor every bit of social media your child has access to,” said Lakota school parent and PTO President Kathy Cook.
LAKOTA’S POLICY ON TEACHER SOCIAL MEDIA USE
“Computers, electronic mail, and voice mail are to be used only for business and educational purposes. Staff members are prohibited from sending offensive, discriminatory, or harassing computer, electronic, or voice mail messages. Also prohibited is “accessing, uploading, downloading, transmitting, printing, posting or storing threatening, obscene, intimidating, defamatory, harassing discriminatory or otherwise unlawful messages or images.”
National student safety experts agree and say the most recent case, which saw Lakota West High School math teacher George Merk lose his teaching license for 45 days under an agreement with state education officials, is the latest example of abuse.
Merk, whose admitted improper behavior did not cross into criminal violations, will return to his job at the Butler County high school once his license suspension ends this month.
Some outside observers wondered why Merk retained his job but Lakota school officials declined to comment further, citing it as a personnel matter they are not allowed to discuss.
School officials at the Ohio Department of Education said each district manages its non-criminal employee transgressions according to its district policy and labor contracts. Punishments also depend on the specifics of each policy violation, severity of the transgression, frequency and other factors.
The explosive proliferation of personal electronic devices (PED) – cell phones, Iphones and laptops – continues to expand into schools, providing more portals for social media abuse.
A recent study by Telefonica and the Financial Times – covering 12,171 interviews with young adults and teenagers in 27 countries – found that 76 percent own their own PED, including 71 percent in North America.
According to Pew Research Center, 55 percent of online American youths ages 12-17 use online social networking sites.
School districts across Ohio and Kentucky have social media policies that prohibit abuse by teachers but parents have to do their part too, says Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation.
Estimates are 1 in 10 students will be sexually abused by a staff member during their school career, says Miller, who has clear advice for parents.
“Get on everything social media,” said Miller, who advises parents to join Twitter and Facebook and any social network online site, not so much to participate but to guard their children.
“And confiscate cell phones and lap tops and everything else each night and lock them up. Children don’t need to be on the Web in the wee hours of the night.”
Miller added: “There is no reason for any personal contact on social media between students and faculty.”
But others said such an approach is too harsh.
Lakota West parent John Trygier called Merk, who previously earned high performance reviews, a good teacher. At some point, Trygier said, parents have to trust what they have taught their children about appropriate behavior.
“You can’t be 100 percent looking over their shoulder because at some point they are on their own,” he said.
Dan Andriacco, spokesman for the Cincinnati Archdiocese, said overly restrictive policies could have a detrimental impact on healthy, responsible teacher-student relationships.
“We wrote our social media policy with a two-fold goal. We wanted to protect children from inappropriate use of social media by adults, while at the same time not stifling healthy and appropriate use of these tools in ministry to young people,” said Andriacco, whose district includes 113 schools enrolling 42,816 students.
“We think it’s worked well, but there’s never any way to measure the potential harm that’s been prevented.”
Tom Ash, a former Ohio school superintendent and now director of government relations for the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, said social media is an area of expanding vulnerability for schools.
“Social media at times have blurred the line between good and bad judgment,” Ash said.
“More and more media users believe that the use of their personal technology devices has created some unbridled right to express themselves without concern for the audience. They write things that they would never share in a conversation. And while such abuses are not confined to educators, such behaviors by teachers become a concern because of their status as role models and their open access to their students.”