With stories in the news nationwide of teachers and students kindling improper relationships through social networking sites and text messages, local school leaders say they're creating and strengthening teacher codes of conduct to draw distinct lines between proper and improper relationships.
Belleville District 201 Superintendent Jeff Dosier said his school board will soon consider a specific policy on when, how and under what circumstances teachers can talk to students away from school.
"There are some really good things about technology," Dosier said. "You can post a Twitter message about homework assignments. This year we're going to post our inclement weather announcements on Twitter when the winter weather gets here. Facebook is a way for our clubs and extracurricular activities to post information. Technology can be a very good thing. You just have to be careful how its used."
In February, a Belleville West teacher, Ryan D. Endsley, of Shiloh, was charged with criminal sexual assault after striking up what police called an "inappropriate relationship."
Dosier said that situation inspired District 201 leaders to look into creating a policy to limit contact between staff members and students. But he said he could not elaborate on a pending case and that he would not comment on whether the teacher and the student involved in that case communicated on a social networking site or by text message.
"One of the things that is of concern to me is the multitude of ways that people communicate with technology these days," Dosier said about the proposed new policy, which could be approved either this month or next. "We've dealt with a lot of issues where students have said things on Facebook thinking they're having a private conversation, but they're not. Kids are also quick to post things on their Twitter account. They don't understand the far-reaching capabilities of those kids of things. We also want to caution staff members to avoid situations that are inappropriate or that could be construed to be inappropriate."
According to the Pew Research Center, about 75 percent of high school-aged teens have a cellphone. On average, teenagers text 60 times a day. But girls tend to text more, with 14- to 17-year-olds sending more than 100 texts a day. According to the study, teens are more likely to talk to their friends by text message. But they're more likely to contact their parents via a phone call.
Some schools, both locally and across the country, have moved to policies that allow students and teachers to talk with each other in the form of public comments on social networking sites. But they forbid teachers from talking to their students in private messages on sites such as Facebook or Myspace or in the form of text messages. It's a policy parents seem to support.
Chris McCulley, of St. Jacob, said student-teacher communications need to be kept out in the open.
"A Facebook page for the classroom -- and classroom only -- I am OK with," McCulley said. "'Befriending' teachers and having access to their personal life, I am not OK with."
O'Fallon Township High School Principal Rich Bickel said District 203 passed a communication policy about a year ago and, so far, it seems to be working well.
"The basic gist of the policy is that any communications between students and staff members should be able to pass what we call the TAP test," Bickel said. "That stands for transparent, accessible and professional. Staff members need to make sure those communications are open and visible, that they're something that is a matter of record, and that they should expect that people could see them and that they should be up to professional standards. They should talk to kids electronically in the same way they would talk to them in class."
Collinsville Unit District 10 Superintendent Robert Green said his school put a new, relatively lenient policy into place for the upcoming school year.
"We just updated our entire policy manual this month and we have added something that talks to personal technology and social media," Green said. "Basically, we're telling employees what our standards are and they're based on state and federal law.
"I don't know that we could prohibit any contact between staff and students," Green said. "But we train our staff annually about this area and they know that if they cross the line, they would be subject to discipline. We remind them that, even if it is outside of school, there is an expectation of a student-teacher relationship and that it needs to be within proper bounds."
Some parents think there should be a total, or at least nearly total, ban of communication between school workers and students on social networking sites and by text message. But would that prevent anything?
"If a pervert is going to do perverted things, a ban wont stop it," Belleville resident Michael Fink said, adding that he would even feel uncomfortable with private emails between educators and students. "If I was a teacher of under-aged children, I would carbon copy the parents on all emails."
Althoff Catholic High School teacher Elaine Laws said, however, that she thinks banning communication between teachers and students via electronic technology would be an overreaction that would throw out the benefits of technology along with the potential dangers.
"Banning teacher-student communication through social networking would impede many of the recent technological efforts many of us have been implementing in our classrooms such as turning in papers and assignments online or getting worksheets or other info from the teacher outside of class," said Laws, a teacher at the school for 21 years. "As a matter of fact, recent educational changes regarding common core curriculum actually require students to access online options and use electronic media to show their understanding of certain objectives.
"As a moderator of numerous school groups, I rely on Facebook especially to get rehearsal and other practice schedules out there as well as advertising what all the clubs are up to," Laws said. "When we go on field trips, we often utilize text messaging to coordinate meeting places and times."
Laws said everything has the possibility of being misused, of course. Training in the proper use of this media for teachers and students and parents needs to continue, she said, "but banning these things touches a bit on freedom-of-speech issues and would force us to go backwards in the use of social media communications."
Althoff Principal David Harris said he agrees that social media and electronic communication have their place in modern schools. He said the rule of thumb at the private, Catholic high school is that communication is to be conducted between groups, not one-on-one.
"We've got it set up here where we do use Facebook," Harris said. "We use it to get out information with some of the sports programs, drama club, math team meetings and things like that. It's for information only, not to interact one-on-one with any student."
Harris said Althoff has a policy against Althoff staff members becoming Facebook friends with students.
"Our teachers know they aren't supposed to be Facebook friends with students while they're students," Harris said. "After they graduate and become alumni, you'll see them become Facebook friends with their former teachers."
Freeburg resident Jon Stacy said he thinks that's the right place to draw the line.
"I know a Southwestern Illinois College teacher who refuses to have anything to do with Facebook for reasons that have brought down others in his field," Stacy said. "Teachers and current students should not be 'friends' on Facebook. There should be a total ban. The school-sponsored page is completely different."
While the District 201 plan hasn't been completed, Dosier said he is already anticipating making changes to it.
"I think it's something that we're going to have to stay on top of because of the way technology is constantly changing," Dosier said. "What we have to worry about tomorrow or a year from now may not even exist yet. So I believe we're going to have to revisit our policy frequently to make sure we keep up with the times."
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at email@example.com or call 239-2626.
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 239-2626.