Schools weigh social media policies

Handwritten notes, which students once passed to each other behind the teacher’s back, have moved into the digital realm.

Students’ ready access to smartphones and social media now means information is shared quickly and freely.

As cyberbullying and the spread of misinformation have proliferated, some school districts have begun to craft social media policies.

Some educators, including LaVarr McBride, an instructor of Administration of Justice at Penn State Beaver, believe that instead of keeping kids from social media, however, schools should encourage students to learn responsible social media skills.

“If we hold back and don’t allow our children to explore these things … then they don’t know how to use it appropriately, because we haven’t taught them how to use it appropriately,” McBride said.

Online rumors

In April, rumors swirled online after the discovery of a written threat of a school shooting at Central Cambria High School, said Vincent DiLeo, Central Cambria superintendent.

The rumors about the nature of the threat spread quickly through the Ebensburg school and community via texting and social media posts.

Some students accused fellow classmates of writing the message, which turned out to be baseless accusations, DiLeo said.

In response, school officials gathered students in the school auditorium to address both the threat and the misinformation being spread online.

“That was the best way to handle the social media inaccuracies,” DiLeo said.

The school was prompted to increase security in the wake of the threat: A uniformed school resource officer is patrolling the school hallways through the end of the school year.

DiLeo said the day of the threatened shooting passed without incident. But the rumors shared by students and even some parents were “completely inflated,” he said.

“I think every district is dealing with [rumors spread through social media],” DiLeo said.

Central Cambria School District has a social media policy in place for district employees, DiLeo said, which prohibits faculty, staff and coaches from contacting students via social media, texts or emails.

But he noted that schools must deal with First Amendment rights when it comes to what limitations can be placed on students.

While in school, students must abide by the district’s Internet use policy. DiLeo said the school will react to any online threats, whether made from home or school.

“[School districts] can’t mandate or dictate that kids do anything any particular way outside of the classroom because of First Amendment issues,” said Rebecca Randall, vice president of education programs for Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit advocacy group. “But they can take action and discipline students when there’s some type of substantial obstruction.”

“Substantial obstructions” typically include threats of violence or anything that would necessitate police intervention, she said.

Social media policies in schools

The role of Facebook in students’ lives is a reality all educators are dealing with, said Linda McCall, Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School principal.

“Unfortunately, we have people using it that aren’t as mature as they should be,” McCall said.

Parents and students have approached school officials with inappropriate social media posts and texts from students, she said. While school administrators handle any incidents that occur during the school day, she said when it comes to incidents outside of school, she encourages parents to involve the local police, who can conduct an investigation.

The district implemented a social media policy for faculty about a year ago, said Paul Gallagher, Hollidaysburg superintendent.

“At all times, including the course of communications via social media, employees should conduct themselves publicly in accordance with the responsibilities of public service,” a portion of the policy reads.

Administrators are watchful for incidents involving social media that violate school policy, Gallagher said. Students can use social media without thinking of the consequences, which can lead to hurtful situations, he said.

“We don’t tolerate bullying,” Gallagher said. “The principals certainly follow up on every type of bullying, including cyberbullying.”

Students often do not understand the serious consequences of their online activity, McBride said.

He spoke of a school district that contacted him for advice after an “exceptional” student posted a message about a teacher on Facebook. The post read, “If murder wasn’t a felony, you would be dead by tonight.”

About 20 of the student’s classmates “liked” the post, McBride said.

The student was expelled from school and lost a college scholarship, but no criminal action was taken, he said.

“The message is, kids aren’t taking this seriously,” McBride said.

Altoona Area School District does not have a social media policy but is in the process of developing one, Paula Foreman, Altoona Area School District spokeswoman, said. The school and law enforcement monitor students’ social media posts and will take action if there is evidence of a threat or cyberbullying, she said.

“The information is getting out there so quickly,” she said.

Social media

as a learning tool

Randall said school districts have an opportunity to embrace social media as part of students’ education.

“There are many schools across the country that are actually starting to integrate social media,” she said.

But the effort is not with difficulties. Schools are grappling with what Randall described as the “walled garden” problem: how to allow students access to online media while simultaneously controlling content and who students interact with while online.

One approach allows teachers to sign up their classes for education-based social media sites, where they can work collaboratively and share content from school and home, Randall said.

She pointed to Edmodo, which looks and feels similar to Facebook and other social networking sites.

Teachers can create groups for their classes and track each student’s online progress. The instructor can update calendars, link to assignments and engage students in a safe environment, Randall said.

Parents can also be invited to use the service, which allows for a direct line of communication with teachers, Randall said.

Outside of the classroom, students need to market themselves online in a positive way, Randall said.

“The large majority of college admissions offices and employers at large are doing searches for candidates online and are in fact looking at online profiles,” she said.

Students need to be knowledgeable about the type of information they post about themselves and others online, Randall said.

While online interactions may not have an impact in high school, they could follow students once they start applying for jobs, the military or college scholarships.

“It’s so easy to hit that send button, but there’s no return button,” DiLeo said.

Parents also have a role in their children’s online presence, McBride said. To teach responsible online behavior, parents must be knowledgeable about the type of information their children share and access, and should familiarize themselves with the technology used.

A positive presence on social media can be a marketing tool for employers and colleges, Randall said. Links to community service projects, awards and other accomplishments, which can be easily found through an online search, will allow students to stand out in a crowd of their peers.

“You want kids to have a digital footprint; you just want it to be the good stuff,” she said. “Everything they do contributes to their digital footprint. It could make or break their reputation.”

Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.