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Debate: Teacher-student friendships on Facebook

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Background and context

Since Facebook became widely used in modern society, a debate has existed regarding whether it is appropriate for teachers and students to have private friendships and communications online. Teachers, students, school administrators, and parents have juggled with the question.
And, in August of 2011, the debate entered legal territory, as the state of Missouri initiated a law that would take effect on August 28th banning private/exclusive teacher-student relationships online, while allowing conversations that occur in public view. The Missouri law, called the "Amy Hestir Student Protection Act" after a former Missouri public school student who was molested by a teacher decades prior, mandates that: "Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student."[1] The new law has created widespread debate in the United States and elsewhere regarding the appropriate boundaries for teachers in their online relationships, and, more generally, regarding appropriate communications between minors and adults online. The pros and cons of the law are considered below.
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Education: Can teacher-student friendships improve learning?

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Pro

  • Vast majority of teachers use "friendships" appropriately. Doug Bonney, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri: "We have tons of calls coming into our office on this issue. The vast majority of teachers are using social media very appropriately and effectively in our state."[2]
  • Teachers need to connect with students in their digital world. Brent Ghan, spokesman of the Missouri School Boards Association, pointed out that high school students live in a virtual world these days and to cut direct and private contact in this arena is a bad idea. "That is how you communicate with them," Ghan said.[3]
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Con

  • Teacher-student "friendships" just expose unwanted info Josh Wolford at WebProNews: "Let's be honest, social media is a liability. Maintaining a respectable image is incredibly important as a teacher,' and doing so on Facebook can be a challenge. Even when sexual misconduct isn't an issue, 'does a teacher really want Tuesday morning's classroom discussion to be dominated by Monday night's relationship status change from 'engaged' to 'single'?' Why let students know, even inadvertently, that she graded their papers while battling a grueling hangover? On the flip side, do students really want their teacher to know what they were doing all weekend when they were supposed to be studying? I think not."[4]
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Sexual abuse: Does exclusive access risk sexual abuse?

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Pro

  • Facebook law assumes worse about teachers Christine Greenhow, an assistant professor at the College of Education and the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland: "It seems to assume the worst about teachers, that teachers are sexual predators. Amy Mascott, a mother of three and former teacher who started Teach Mama, a blog focusing on education, said: "I feel it immediately colors the teacher-student relationship in a negative way, assuming that all teachers are going to act inappropriately with students."[5]
Casey Chan at Gizmodo. This law seems to be "accusing all teachers of some sort of blanket guilt."[6]
  • Laws against sexual abuse apply; no need to ban "friendships." Laws on the books already exist regarding sexual harassment and abuse of minors. If an administrator, parent, or anybody else discovers an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and student, they will have every recourse to pursue legal action.
  • Risks of sexual abuse exist everywhere; FB law overreacts. Inside and outside of school property, there is always a risk of sexual abuse. This does not mean that cameras should be placed in every classroom and on every street corner. A balance must be struct that recognizes individual liberties and the need for safety. The FB law goes too far in violating individual liberties in order to try to solve a risk online that would not receive a proportionally draconian approach offline.


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Con

  • Exclusive teacher-student relationships are inappropriate. Charol Shakeshaft, professor and chairwoman of the Department of Educational Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University: "Exclusive and private contact with your students isn't educationally necessary. In the same way that in a school we would say, 'No, you may not lock yourself into a room with a student,' this law effectively says, 'No you may not lock yourself into a website where only you can get to the student.' [...] Anything I need to do as a teacher I can do in a public space or a space that can be accessed by people. If I need to be doing it completely in private, then I shouldn't be doing it."[7]
  • Banning teacher-student "friendships" responds to real abuse While some think that the Facebook law unfairly puts teachers in a negative light, parents are not being irrational in worrying about a teacher potentially taking advantage of students. A 2004 report for the Department of Education found that 10 percent of public school children have been victims of sexual harassment or abuse. A 2007 Associated Press study found that there were 2,500 allegations of sexual misconduct by teachers, school psychologists, administrators and other school employees across 50 states over five years.[8]
  • Online interactions are used to groom sexual victims. Charol Shakeshaft, professor and chairwoman of the Department of Educational Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University: "A lot of the grooming of students for sexual abuse is now happening over the Internet," Shakeshaft said, noting that in the 50 court cases she has been consulted on involving students being sexually abused by school employees, every one of them involved communication by email, IM, text or a social network.[9]


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Free speech: Teacher-student "friendships" a free speech/assoc right?

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Pro

  • Banning teacher-student "friendships" violates free speech/assoc Individuals have a right to associate and communicate with whomever they like in their private time. Forbidding teachers from communicating with their students freely on their private time, for schooling or other purposes, therefore violates their right to free speech and free association.
  • Schools not state should regulate teacher-student "friendships." It should be left up to schools to set the boundaries for social media. Some schools may need to emphasize teacher-student mentoring in and out of the classroom, for example, and find it important to allow Facebook "friendships" and private communications. And, by making it a school instead of state responsibility, there is less risk of running into first amendment and freedom of association issues; if a student, teacher, or parent doesn't like a policy, they can simply leave (whereas a state law is more binding).


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Con

  • Restrictions allow online comm, just not exclusive ones. Republican State Sen. Jane Cunningham: "We are by no means trying to stop communication, just make it appropriate and make it available to those who should be seeing it," Cunningham said. "Exclusive communication is a pathway into the sexual misconduct."[10]
  • FB law places reasonable limits on free speech/assoc. There are many limits on free speech, from libel laws to hate crime laws. All of these are intended to address real threats to society. The FB law does the same thing. It does not prohibit speech nor association between students and teachers, but simply limits private, exclusive speech and associations in order to address a real hazard of sexual abuse.


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Emergencies: Are private comms important for emergencies?

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Pro

  • Online relationships let students in need reach out. Laws against teacher-student online "friendships" very well could prevent some students "from confiding in a trusted adult friend who might be able to help them get through serious problems," says Randy Turner, a Missouri middle school teacher, as quoted at PC Mag. "For Joplin students, that could be dealing with the aftermath of losing their homes and having their lives uprooted on May 22. For others, it may be confiding in just the kind of horrific crime that the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act is supposedly designed to eliminate."[11]


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Con

  • Job of student-counselors to respond to emergencies. Student counselors are there to counsel students during emergencies or broader, challenging life circumstances. They are professionals in this work and teachers should defer to them. It is, therefore, unnecessary and potentially undesirable to look to exclusive online interactions between teachers and students as a means of dealing with student life issues and emergencies.


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Enforcement: Can these kinds of laws enforceable?

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Pro

  • Hard to enforce restrictions on student-teacher relationships. Charlie White at Mashable: "I have to wonder how this law will be policed and enforced without violating anyone's constitutional right to privacy. Will the state be able to access personal computers and social networking accounts to monitor teachers and students? Those in inappropriate relationships will likely be discreet, making such affairs hard to detect."[12]
  • Damaging to force teachers to "unfriend" students. Many teachers have student friends. Creating a law that prevents their private interactions forces teachers to "unfriend" these students, an action which entails its own set of costs, harm, and regret between both the teacher and student. It would likely confuse children, sending the message that they were doing something wrong even though they were not (the vast majority of exclusive interactions are appropriate). This can be unnecessarily confusing and distressing for students and teachers.
  • What if a teacher has a child in their school? Daniel Solove, a law professor and privacy expert who consults with schools on privacy issues, thinks the law is too broad: “What if the teacher has a child who attends the teacher’s school? Does that mean that a parent can’t friend his or her own child on a social media site?"[13]
  • What about teachers w/ student-friends at other schools? Daniel Solove, a law professor and privacy expert, said to Forbes in August of 2011: "Who counts as a 'student’? A student in the teacher’s class? In the teacher’s school? In the teacher’s district? In any school of any time anywhere?"[14]


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Con

  • FB law would mostly act to deter teach-student "friendships." The main effect of the FB law is to deter teachers from accepting or initiating relationships with students. Most will be effectively deterred knowing that they can be criminally charged if they are discovered.
  • School administrators would do most of the monitoring. The state would not have to do much monitoring, if any, of teacher behavior. Instead, school administrators and parents would naturally take up the bulk of this responsibility. If a violation of the law was suspected and reported to the authorities, they could then investigate. This is a manageable recipe for enforcing the "Facebook law."
  • Exceptions/exemptions can be created for Facebook law. Reasonable exemptions exist to almost every law. It is easy to, for example, craft exceptions to allow teacher-parents and their student-children to be "friends" on Facebook.



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Pro/con sources

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