It's a cardinal rule among educators: Interacting with students on social media, if it is allowed, requires caution and the same amount of professionalism that would be conducted offline in a classroom setting. But what happens when a teacher breaks this rule?
That's the unsettling situation the community of Clayton, Missouri, is facing after several students and parents accepted a Facebook friendship request from "Suzy Harriston." The mysterious figure who had a nondescript Facebook profile photo and more than 300 friends, many of them from Clayton High School is said to have actually been the school's principal.
"Whoever is friends with Suzy Harriston on Facebook needs to drop them. It is the Clayton Principal," wrote 2011 graduate Chase Haslett on Facebook.
Haslett's post on April 5 warranted several reactions, including the obvious: "How do you know?"
Haslett's response: "Can't say who told me."
After Haslett's allegation four weeks ago which has since been removed from Facebook Suzy Harriston's profile mysteriously disappeared. And the district announced that the high school principal, Louise Losos, would begin a leave of absence.
"This is both a personal issue for Louise and a personnel matter for the district," Chris Tennill, chief communications officer for the School District of Clayton, wrote in an email. "As this involves personnel, we are not able to provide any additional details at this time."
This past Friday, Losos officially resigned from her post as principal.
The school district has remained silent about Losos' leave of absence and resignation, and Tennill has said the district will not elaborate on the nature of Losos' social media activity or whether she was the person behind Suzy Harriston's account.
Clayton's official policy regarding electronic communication between students and staff is that staff must "maintain professional boundaries," and communication should be for "educational purposes."
Of course, if Suzy Harriston was in fact Louise Losos, none of these requirements were met and the students didn't know they had given a school official insight into their online activities on Facebook.
The Clayton case is a reminder of how blurry the line is for educators between their professional role and what they do online during after-school hours there is currently is no clear rule stating how exactly schools can use social media, or whether teachers should monitor students' after-school activities. In Seattle, for example, teachers have the right to punish students for what they say on social media during non-school hours. In 2009, high school administrators in Mississippi forced a cheerleader to reveal her Facebook password and later punished her over what they found in her account.
Most recently, in New York City, the Department of Education banned student-teacher interactions on social media. This was also the case in Missouri until backlash against the law prompted a repeal. Now in Missouri, districts preside over these policy decisions.
The role of teachers online is not the only issue the Clayton case has raised. The concern that the principal was "spying" on students through Facebook is yet another warning for us to control our privacy online. After all, privacy advocates say you should never friend or accept the friendship request of someone you don't know.
What do you think should be the role of teachers online? Should they be allowed to "supervise" students' Facebook activities after-school hours? Sound off in the comments.