'Friending' students can be risky

By Joe Dejka
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A Nebraska school superintendent said he regrets recently posting a remark about thong underwear on the Facebook page of a 19-year-old former student whom he described as a friend.
The remark, described by Ravenna Public Schools Superintendent Dwaine Uttecht as a joke and “pretty stupid,” ended up part of a closed school board session.
Public employees have learned the hard way that social networking on computers carries the risk of embarrassing exposure, and sometimes harsher consequences. Three Nebraska prison guards lost their jobs this year over their Facebook postings.
Now educators in Iowa and Nebraska are discovering that new communication technologies exacerbate an age-old problem for the teaching profession: adults improperly fraternizing with students.

The Papillion-La Vista school board adopted a “Professional Boundaries” policy last week that prohibits employees from engaging in friendships with a student on MySpace, Facebook or other social networking sites.
School board President Dan Flanagan said the board was not responding to any incident but wanted to get ahead of potential problems.
The metropolitan area's two largest school districts -- Omaha Public Schools and Millard Public Schools -- don't specifically prohibit teacher-student contacts, via social networks or electronic media, outside of school matters. If inappropriate communications were to occur, those districts would deal with them through their existing policies governing ethics and the professionalism of educators, officials said.
Last year, the state commission that reviews alleged teacher misconduct heard its first case of a teacher accused of inappropriate communication with students on Facebook.
The 27-year-old female math teacher and coach, who resigned from the Shelton Public Schools, wasn't accused of making sexual advances, buying alcohol or other obvious no-nos with students.
What got her into trouble was exchanging crude chitchat that the commission ruled had breached the state's professional code of conduct for teachers. The Nebraska Board of Education suspended her teaching certificate for two years.
Carol Greta, attorney for the Iowa Education Department, said younger teachers and coaches, in particular, are vulnerable to blurring the line between friendship and professionalism.
“They haven't quite made the leap from being a student to being at the front of a classroom,” she said.
She advises teachers who use social-networking sites to “never, ever let a student be your ‘friend'” the term that some sites use for an authorized visitor to your page.
Brian Halstead, attorney for the Nebraska Education Department, said the problem of teachers fraternizing with students “has been around from the beginning.”
“They're the professional,” Halstead said. “They should be communicating with the kids in a professional manner about education.”
Laws in Nebraska and Iowa set professional standards for teachers and administrators. In Nebraska, for example, teachers must “exhibit good moral character.” Both states require teachers to protect students from conditions harmful to learning or to health or safety.
Ravenna's Uttecht told The World-Herald he is best friends with the father of the young woman upon whose Facebook page he left a posting. He did so after she posted: “if sweatpants and a t-shirt is considered stylish ... i'm rocking it.”
Uttecht responded: “I'm thinking a thong and topless may be more stylish.”
Someone copied the postings and gave them to the board.
Uttecht said he posted the message “late one night” and never thought anyone else would see it. He said he apologized to the young woman and spoke to her father, who he said wasn't offended.
“In my position, it was stupid to put it on Facebook,” Uttecht said.
The Ravenna district, located north of Kearney, has a policy prohibiting staff members from having students as social networking friends, but the young woman was not a student, Uttecht said.
“I certainly have learned my lesson,” he said. “I need to think before I post anything on the Internet, which I don't do very often.”
He said the only reason he signed up with Facebook was to have easy access to pictures of his granddaughter.
Ravenna school board President Fred Matejka said the board dealt with the matter in a closed session with Uttecht and wants to move on. Matejka said that he does not condone what Uttecht did, but that it appears to have been an isolated incident.
He said Uttecht is “not perfect, but he's a darn good superintendent.”
“I think he realizes it was something he never should have done,” Matejka said.
In the Shelton case, the math teacher's online activity came under scrutiny after someone printed excerpts from her Facebook page and gave them to the school board.
The pages contained crude, sexually explicit jokes and banter and references to alcohol.
At the commission hearing, the teacher testified she had developed “really, really close” relationships with some of the girls on the basketball team, who confided in her and trusted her. She invited them into her page as friends.
Halstead, who argued the state's case at the hearing, said her conduct did not meet standards expected of a teacher. Although the technology involved was new, he said, her actions reflected the familiar situation of a teacher neglecting to maintain the role of teacher and deciding to be friends.
Although the messages appeared to be posted in fun, they were clearly inappropriate, Halstead said. He argued that the commission needed to send a clear message to the profession that such behavior was out of bounds.
Greta, the Iowa attorney, briefed Nebraska and Iowa educators last week on the perils of new media. She said e-mail and text messages to students can be “a gateway” to more serious misconduct.
She said that if a teacher wants to set up Internet pages or send texts to children, the communication should be for education purposes and should be “transparent.” All information sent should be copied to a school official and parents, she said.
Papillion-La Vista's new policy details numerous activities that cross the line.
Under the policy, employees can be disciplined for misconduct if they contact a student via e-mail, text message, instant message or social networking sites to discuss a matter that does not pertain to school.
Appropriate topics under the policy would be the student's homework, class activity, school sport or club, or other school-sponsored activities.
If teachers post material on social networking sites, the material must present a “professional image” and not diminish respect for the teacher “or impair the employee's ability to serve as a role model for children.”
The policy also prohibits employees from engaging in “sexual activity, romantic relationship, or dating a student or a former student within one year of the student graduating or otherwise leaving the district.”
OPS spokeswoman Luanne Nelson said the district does not encourage teacher-student contact on social networks.
Some counselors and coaches, however, do communicate with students through e-mail, cell phone, texting and other electronic means if they are assisting a student with a matter, providing an athletic schedule or arranging transportation, she said.
She said district officials would investigate a teacher's social networking page if they received a complaint or other information indicating a problem.
“No matter how a teacher would make inappropriate contact with a student or build an inappropriate relationship, our current board policy covers these actions,” Nelson said.
Angelo Passarelli, Millard's director of administrative affairs, said his district counsels new teachers to keep communications on a professional level.
“You can't be chummy with your kids,” he said.
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