Social media is the "modern public square," as the Supreme Court once noted. All too often, however, employees and students forget this and behave on social media in a manner that they would not if interacting in person. Hiding behind the blue light of a smartphone, they feel a sense of anonymity, or perhaps become emboldened. Furthermore, privacy settings and automatic deletion on certain applications can create a false sense of security.
To effectively manage social media use in the school community, employees and students need to understand that content posted online is never truly private, and that any post has the potential to have a ripple effect in the broader school community. Policies and training can go a long way in ensuring employees and students understand the school's expectations and the consequences for failing to meet those expectations:
Considerations for Employee Policies
- Ensure that employees understand that even personal social media accounts are not truly "personal" or "private" – even the best privacy settings cannot prevent the possibility that a post is captured in a screenshot and then circulated around the school community.
- Provide employees with guidance on what is permissible to post on personal social media accounts. At all times, employees should remember their obligation to serve as role models for the school's students and understand that their posts will reflect back on the school community. For example, posting hate speech, threats of violence, harassment, racial epithets, or profanity on social media may not only violate the law, but could very well also violate the school's policies on anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, or professionalism.
- Restrict an employee's ability to "friend" or connect with students on social media platforms. Doing so both prevents the appearance of a conflict of interest and helps reinforce the understanding that communications between students and employees should be conducted on school-approved channels. For example, consider establishing a policy that prohibits employees from "friending" or connecting with students on social media until a certain number of years have passed since the student has graduated from the school (taking into account the ages of the students in the school). Consider placing similar restrictions on "friending" parents of students in an employee's class.
- While it is permissible for employees to "friend" one another on social media, they should remember that the fact that a post is made online does not mean the employee is immune from being held accountable to the school's policies. Just as a harassing comment made at an after-hours function could trigger an obligation for the school to take action, so could a harassing message sent via social media trigger an obligation to investigate.
- Ensure that the school's policies are not so sweeping that they prohibit certain types of communications that are protected under federal law. For example, under the National Labor Relations Act, employees (even in non-unionized workforces) have a right to discuss wages and working conditions with one another – including on social media.
- Employees should understand that failure to act in a matter that is consistent with your policies could lead to disciplinary action.
Considerations for Student Policies
- Any policy regarding social media use for students should take into account the age(s) of the students the school is addressing – middle school students and upper school students may use social media in different ways and may not have the same understanding and appreciation for responsible use.
- Students should similarly understand that what they post is never truly private – regardless of the privacy settings or potential for automatic deletion. Other students can make – and have made – screenshots of posts to send around to their classmates. In certain instances, posts have been saved and then resurfaced after the fact. Provide students with an easy-to-remember and understandable guideline that will help inform them on what to post. For example, a guideline for students could be to avoid posting anything that they would not want shown to, for example, their parents or grandparents.
- Any student social media policy should remind students that their actions online may have an effect on their peers and will necessarily reflect back on the school community. Just as schools would be wise to remind employees that their posts may not violate the school's conduct policies, so should students be aware that their posts should not violate the school's policies on anti-bullying, hazing, or harassment, or otherwise violate any school code of conduct.
- Ensure students understand the importance of concepts like respecting others' intellectual property when online, critical thinking about "viral" information, and assessing its veracity before sharing.
- Students should understand that failure to act in a manner that is consistent with the school's policies on social media use may require the school to initiate its disciplinary procedures.
- The school-parent partnership is always important, and similarly so in monitoring social media use. Parents should be expected to be aware of their child's social media use, not to permit their child to use social media in impermissible or even illegal ways, and to partner with the school in assessing or investigating potential violations of the school's policy.
Of course, it is important to remember that the landscape of social media is constantly changing, with new platforms being developed and other platforms falling into disuse or disfavor. Schools would be wise to periodically modify their policies as needed, while also ensuring that both employees and students have training on the school's expectations.