Oct 17 2013

How to Navigate Social Media Policy and Legal Issues

A district superintendent and attorney detail the challenges that can derail a school’s effective use of social media.

While many districts enthusiastically embrace the use of Web 2.0 tools in school to enrich learning and to meet so-called digital natives where they live, others avoid social media or ban the use of all Web 2.0 tools via filters, policies or both.

North Boone Community Unit School District 200 is firmly in the first camp. Located in Boone County, Ill., North Boone uses wikis, blogs and other Web 2.0 tools to engage and educate its 1,800 students, as well as Facebook, blogs and Twitter to provide information to parents, students, staff and the community.

Studies show that students are more likely to be engaged in learning if technology is integrated into the curriculum. Social media are easily accessible, real-world applications that, when used strategically, can ­increase student engagement and skill development. They achieve this by immersing students more fully in the world around them.

Districts should take advantage of social media in order to communicate effectively in a 24/7 society. As they struggle with increasingly complex, ever-evolving issues, such as budget challenges, curricular ­standards and education reform, it's become nearly ­impossible to ­provide up-to-date ­information via school newsletters and other traditional communication ­vehicles. Printing and mailing costs also can be difficult to justify when there are less expensive alternatives.

The simple fact is that students, parents and other stakeholders will continue to use social media — and districts can't afford to be left behind. These five steps can help when ­navigating the policy and legal issues associated with social media use.

1. Include Social Media in All District Policies

To ensure that everyone within the district uses social media effectively, it's important to develop a range of policies that detail what is and isn't acceptable. Be clear and specific, and provide definitions when necessary.

Also, districts should require ­students, staff and parents to sign acceptable-use policies (AUPs) ­annually. For schools to ­proscribe certain types of off-campus conduct, they must be explicit about what's prohibited. Banned behavior might include ­conduct that causes or threatens to cause a substantial ­disruption at school or that interferes with the rights of other students to feel secure and receive an education.

North Boone opted to include ­social media use guidelines within the scope of its AUP rather than create a policy dedicated to social media. The reason: One policy is easier to update, explain and promulgate. Be sure that social media–related ­components ­address scope of use; prohibited uses; liability; privacy; and ­cyberbullying. Policies on harassment and general ­disciplinary issues also should ­address social media concerns.

2. Create Basic Social Media Accounts

Create general social media accounts for the school or district and link to them from the district's website to increase awareness of their existence. Visitors to North Boone's website will find direct links to the district's Twitter handle, Facebook page and blog at the bottom of every page.

2 The maximum number of hours it should take to set up a school or district's social media presence

SOURCE: Social Networking for Schools

Develop a districtwide plan that specifies who will update each of the social media accounts and how often they will do so. North Boone updates its accounts every few days. The blog provides the widest range of content.

3. Automate the Linking of Social Media Accounts

Streamline the management of social media sites with RSS Graffiti or a similar program, which links accounts so posts to one site automatically update the others. Most Web 2.0 tools have some sort of internal ­automation options as well.

A district's Facebook users don't always visit its corresponding website or blog, so this simple step can ensure that there are multiple access points to the information the district wants to share with the community.

4. Develop a Process to Address User Comments

It's important to read posted ­comments — and to respond, when it's appropriate — but be selective when accepting Facebook friend ­requests on behalf of the district.

North Boone has set up its Facebook page to allow comments, which go directly to the webmaster. This allows district officials to respond to comments via Facebook without having to worry about creating a public forum that could become ­difficult to manage.

Similarly, the district has many "likes" but doesn't "friend" people or "like" organizations itself. This eliminates any potential bias toward people, businesses or causes.

The district also posts ­photos from school activities on its Facebook page. When featured students are minors, be sure that their parents have signed a media ­release form that gives the district permission to share their names and show their faces online or in the media.

5. Solicit Feedback

Take advantage of social media to seek input from district stakeholders.

North Boone creates a number of online surveys each year so that ­parents and community members can provide direct feedback to the administrative team and the Board of Education. District officials explain the reasons for each survey on the blog and promote it via Twitter and Facebook. These efforts generate significantly better response rates than fliers or ­automated calls.

Here's proof that such feedback matters: North Boone recently was involved in a facilities sales tax ­referendum, so we set up a link to allow people to contact the district with questions. Those questions were then integrated into a frequently asked questions page that was shared online. Happily, the referendum passed in April, and Boone County schools will start receiving additional funds for school construction this fall.


For Your Consideration

Social Networking for Schools includes an analysis of the various legal considerations that come into play when districts embrace social media, a complete set of social media communications plans, and a compendium of sample policies addressing a variety of topics, including:

  • Ethics
  • Acceptable use
  • Harassment (cyberbullying and sexting, for example)
  • Discipline
  • Restricted publications