Texting still OK under sexual misconduct rules

Erica Terrini

Executive Editor

The Virginia Board of Education has backed away from a proposal to prohibit teachers from using text messaging and social media to interact with students. Instead, the panel said such electronic communication must be “transparent” and “professional.”

The board made that decision last week in adopting guidelines for school districts to follow when they craft policies to prevent sexual misconduct and abuse involving students.

When the board reviewed drafts of the guidelines last year, some educators raised concerned about provisions restricting out-of-class interactions between teachers and students. Those provisions covered a range of digital communications, noted Valerie Kibler, who advises the student newspaper at Harrisonburg High School and is director of the Virginia Association of Journalism Teachers and Advisers.

“I was initially against them because the initial language was going to forbid communications via electronic messaging, texting, Facebooking, social networking … and that is used so widely among journalism teachers,” Kibler said.

The guidelines will be a resource for school boards when they develop policies governing teacher-student interactions. Original drafts would have prohibited school employees from text-messaging or communicating with students using non-school platforms.

“Just this morning, I had to contact about 25 kids using text messaging to remind them to get their money in to pay for their Advanced Placement exams. And if I wouldn’t have had that, it would have taken me 20-something phone calls,” Kibler said.

Since releasing the draft of its “Guidelines for the Prevention of Sexual Misconduct and Abuse in Virginia Public Schools” last fall, the Board of Education has been taking public comments. In light of concerns expressed by teachers and others, board members revised the final set of guidelines.

The final version states:

“Digital technology and social networking provide multiple means for educators and other school board employees to communicate with students and personalize learning. Local policies should ensure that electronic and online communications between employees, volunteers and individual students are transparent, accessible to supervisors and parents, and professional in content and tone.

“As with in-person communications, educators and volunteers should avoid appearances of impropriety and refrain from inappropriate electronic communications with students.”

The guideline say school districts should consider multiple factors to determine whether an electronic communication is inappropriate. The factors include:

  • The subject, content, purpose, authorization, timing and frequency of the communication
  • Whether there was an attempt to conceal the communication from supervisors and/or parents
  • Whether the communication could be reasonably interpreted as soliciting sexual contact or a romantic relationship
  • Whether the communication was sexually explicit

The state Board of Education developed the guidelines “to help local school boards create and implement policies and procedures that deter misconduct, provide accountability, and establish clear and reasonable boundaries for interactions among students and teachers, other school board employees, and adult volunteers.”

The guidelines also address in-person communication and interaction. According to that section, teachers, school employees and volunteers should not invite students “for social contact off school grounds without the permission or knowledge of parents,” for example.

“Personal contact between adults and students must always be nonsexual, appropriate to the circumstances and unambiguous in meaning,” the guidelines state.

Kibler said she does not believe the guidelines will deter sexual predators.

“I think where there’s a will, there’s a way, and (sexual predators) are going to find another way,” Kibler said. “Having a policy like that pretty much says that we don’t trust our professional educators.”

However, Charol Shakeshaft, a professor who chairs VCU’s Department of Educational Leadership, said it’s important to have guidelines for school policies to prevent sexual misconduct and abuse. She has been researching the subject for 15 years.

“It’s important to have the guidelines because 10 percent of kids report being the target of sexual misconduct by someone who works at their school,” Shakeshaft said. “In Virginia, that’s 12,500 students – and we need to do something about it.”

Shakeshaft said that while she endorses the guidelines, she is aware of teachers’ concerns about restrictions on communicating electronically with students.

“I don’t want to do anything that would restrict the use of technology in schools,” she said. “But we also have to be aware that one of the ways that predators contact kids without their parents’ knowledge is through social media.”

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