ACLU has issues with school social media policy
Warwick Public Schools have again caught the attention of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union, this time for a draft social media policy that was tabled at the last School Committee meeting.
A letter from the ACLU’s Steven Brown dated March 10, addressed to the School Committee and CC’ed to Superintendent Philip Thornton, offered some advice on what the organization hoped to see in a revised policy. Brown noted that the ACLU was glad the discussion was tabled and expressed support for concerns raised by some School Committee members and the public about the “problematic breadth of the proposal.” He urged the School Committee to “consider first and foremost the importance of protecting the First Amendment rights of its employees” should the policy be revisited.
“We recognize that the proliferation of social media use can create some difficult issues in the employment setting, but it is crucial to emphasize that teachers and other school employees retain certain basic First Amendment rights even as new forms of communication become common,” Brown wrote.
“Any policies governing limitations on social media use must be carefully and narrowly drawn in order to protect those rights. The proposal that was before the committee by, among other things, barring employee use of social media during personal time such as lunch breaks, or ambiguously blurring the lines between official school social media and employees' personal media accounts, raised important free speech concerns.”
The school administration-drafted policy entitled Social Media Policy and Guidelines for Employee Use was introduced at last Tuesday’s meeting. It offers rules for employees who post to social media on behalf of Warwick Public Schools, plus further suggestions for personal and professional pages run by other employees. The guidelines address how posts should remain professional, how to avoid risky situations and arguments, and how to manage privacy settings.
“The line between professional and personal relationships is blurred within a social media context,” a portion of the guidelines read. “When any employee chooses to join or engage with students, families or fellow employees in a social media context that exists outside those approved by the Warwick Public Schools, they are advised to maintain their professionalism as WPS employees and have responsibility for addressing inappropriate behavior or activity on these networks, including requirements for mandated reporting.”
The guidelines urge employees not to connect with former students until at least five years after their high school graduation, note that parents must be consulted before social media is used in classrooms for educational purposes, state that employees should not use social media for personal purposes during the work day, and say "an employee who is responsible for a social media network posting that fails to comply with the rules and guidelines set forth in this policy may be subject to discipline, up to and including termination."
Teachers Union President Darlene Netcoh had a host of issues with the “overreaching” policy, saying it got tabled due to it being “so beyond the pale crazy.”
“I just don’t know where to begin; it’s riddled with grammatical errors, there’s repetition in it and it contains bullet points that totally violate people’s First Amendment rights,” she said Wednesday, adding that she questions whether the policy was properly vetted before it was put forth for School Committee review.
School Committee Chair Beth Furtado said Wednesday she hadn’t yet seen the ACLU letter but said the policy would be under review and perhaps rewritten entirely so it applies not only to teachers but to school committee and any other employees that would be affected by the committee and the school’s legal department.
“We did listen to comments and concerns, which is why we didn’t pass it,” she said.
Furtado said she does believe some sort of social media policy should exist but is not sure what the components of that policy should be. That can help be decided upon running it by legal, she said.
Thornton said Warwick isn’t the only district considering a policy on social media.
“If you look across the nation, you will observe school districts having similar conversations on this subject,” he said in an email on Wednesday.
School Committee member Karen Bachus welcomed Brown’s letter and said it addressed many of the concerns she had with the policy. She reiterated that “any social media policy needs to be developed with all stakeholders’ involvement and input.”
“I have great respect for Mr. Brown. It is important that we do not violate the constitutional rights of any individual employed by Warwick Schools,” she said Wednesday. “[The policy] must be fair and not restrict the rights of any one who is subject to the policy. That includes teachers, staff, parents, students, middle management, the school committee, administration and the public.”
Fellow School Committee member David Testa said the policy “sounded like my mother scolding me” and noted that he’s a big supporter of First Amendment rights. However, he felt some reactions were “a bit premature” as it’s a draft policy.
“It was a first go-through draft. I wouldn’t have expected it to pass that night,” he said Wednesday. “Obviously, there were flaws in it… and we’re going to revise it.”
Testa, who also said he had not yet seen the ACLU’s letter, said the policy document has been shared with School Committee members and that they have the opportunity to suggest edits. He’d like to see a subcommittee put together on the matter so all stakeholders who would be affected by the policy could be heard.
The ACLU previously took notice of Warwick schools in January, issuing a statement expressing First Amendment concerns when students were punished with a three-hour detention after they walked out of class in protest of a School Committee decision to not endorse a City Council resolution that advocated for a third party investigation of special education.