Hawkins County BOE mulls limiting texts, emails between students, teachers

Jeff Bobo • May 28, 2013 at 11:21 AM

ROGERSVILLE — A stricter electronic communication policy that prohibits email and text communications between teachers and students that aren’t related to instructional or school activity issues will be considered by the Hawkins County Board of Education when it meets in regular session June. 4.

During Thursday’s workshop, the BOE was presented with a revised “Student Relations” policy which addresses communications including texting, email, phone, social media and written communications.

The original policy already requires staff members to use “good judgment in their relationship with students beyond their work responsibilities and/or outside the school setting” and to avoid “excessive informal and social involvement with individual students.”

New language added to that policy states, “Communications (texts, email, phone, social media, written, etc.) between students and staff members outside the school setting shall be restricted to instructional or school-related activities only.”

This past March a teacher was accused of sending Facebook messages of a sexually suggestive nature to a 17-year-old female student. Some of those messages allegedly were sent after 1 a.m. and were allegedly read by the girl’s mother and a Hawkins County sheriff’s deputy before being deleted.

County Attorney Jim Phillips has instructed the BOE not to publicly discuss that situation, which remains under investigation by the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

However, the proposed policy change was in reaction to the situation, which resulted in the teacher’s being suspended for three days without pay.

The Student Relations policy had already stated, “Any appearance of impropriety shall be avoided. Sexual relationships between employees and students shall be prohibited.”

The BOE was also presented Thursday with a new version of the policy entitled “Employee Use of Social Media.”

The old policy states school employees should exercise care in setting appropriate boundaries between their personal life and their public online behavior.

Employees are “strongly” discouraged from including current minor students as online “friends” or “followers.”

It sets guidelines including that employees shall not make statements that violate the policy of Hawkins County Schools; avoid making defamatory remarks about the school system, staff, students, or a student’s family; and employees will not disclose confidential information about a student, student’s family or other school-related issues.

The new proposed policy hits many of those points, but also requires employees to allow school officials to view their private social networking websites, blog or Internet postings.

The new policy states employees’ public postings should remain “professional and appropriate for minor students’ viewing.”

Also added to the policy is a notation stating violations of the policy may result in disciplinary action up to and including termination.

Assistant Director of Schools Steve Starnes told the BOE Thursday there are occasions when teachers need to communicate with students outside of school, such as practice cancellations or setting up meeting dates and times during a field trip. He added, however, that social media wouldn’t be the appropriate mechanism for those communications.

“We’re not saying they can’t have these accounts, or they can’t post on these accounts,” Starnes said. “We’re just saying (avoid) anything that would be public or shine a bad light on them carrying out their duties as a teacher.”

Most BOE policies are drafted by the Tennessee School Board Association, but Starnes said the new proposed policy was drafted by the law firm of Lewis, Keene and Craig, which has been contracted by Hawkins County Schools on some past legal matters.

Starnes noted that one advantage is that if the new policy had to be defended in court, the firm that wrote it would also be defending it.

The Social Media policy will be considered for approval by the BOE when it meets June 4 as well.

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