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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.

Education: Can teacher-student friendships improve learning?

Pro

  • FB law widens gap b/w student lives inside/outside school. "Missouri 'Facebook Law' Limits Teacher-Student Interactions Online, Draws Criticism And Praise." Huffington Post. August 3rd, 2011: "'The number one technology that students use outside school is social networking sites,' said Christine Greenhow, an assistant professor at the College of Education and the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. 'This is the technology they're going to as their one-stop shop for communication. It's their email, their bulletin board, their online photo album, it's where they do their writing.' For that reason, Greenhow, whose area of expertise is learning in social media contexts, argued that limiting communication between teachers and students only furthers the gap between a student's in-school life and his or her life outside of school."


Con

Sexual abuse: Does exclusive access risk sexual abuse?

Pro

  • Facebook law assumes worst 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."[2]
Casey Chan at Gizmodo. This law seems to be "accusing all teachers of some sort of blanket guilt."[3]
  • 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.


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."[4]
  • Facebook law responds to real teacher-student 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.[5]
  • 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.[6]


Free speech: Are teacher-student rel a free speech/assoc right?

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.


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."[7]


Emergencies: Are private comms important for emergencies?

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."[8]
  • Damaging to force teachers to "unfriend" students. Many teachers have many 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.
  • Forcing "unfriending" confuses students w/ teacher friends. If a student and teacher had a number of in-bounds, private online interactions, and then were forbidden from having further interactions, it would likely send the message to the student that they were doing something wrong even though they were not. This can be unnecessarily confusing and distressing for a student.


Con

  • FB law protects teachers/students from unwanted exposure. 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."[9]

Enforcement: Can these kinds of laws enforceable?

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."[10]
  • 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?"[11]
  • 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?"[12]


Con

Pro/con sources

Pro


Con


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