The Polk County School Board discussed an interesting topic on Wednesday during a special work session.
Board members and district officials spent some time talking about comments by students on Facebook, specifically derogatory comments about teachers and administrators. At issue was whether the district can punish students for those kinds of comments.
According to the story online today by Merissa Green of The Ledger, attorney Wes Bridges said that the students’ comments are protected as free speech. This was Bridges’ comment to board members:
“Whether we like it or not, that’s protected speech. It is difficult to regulate the freedom of speech of students off campus. It’s no different than the kids going to the mall and saying the same things to their friends about their principal or teachers.”
The board members also brought up that cellphones in the classroom are an ever-increasing problem. I certainly understand that issue, as my wife is a teacher and has had to tell students to put their phones away during class.
So how are schools going to be able to address social media and cellphone issues?
Well, when it comes to social media, if the comments aren’t threatening Bridges’ comments about sum it up. I did find Dick Mullenax’s statement pretty funny, though, and a little out of touch. Of course, this could have been out of context, but here’s his quote:
“The flip side of this is you can’t say a word about a student in a social media environment.”
Well of course a teacher can’t say anything derogatory about a student. If they said it to a parent or a reporter or someone else who shared it, they would be disciplined. Now, if you say it on Facebook and have your privacy settings strict enough, it might not be a problem, but the generic “flip side” argument is somewhat silly.
One area that I think schools can still discipline students when it comes to social media or even with cellphones is cyber-bullying. There have already been cases where Florida students have been charged for Facebook bullying, including this one from Estero. I’d like to see the School Board focus more discussion on that aspect of Facebook than criticism of teachers by students.
It’s probably not a great idea for teachers to be friending students or reading student Facebook pages anyway. If they get a report of bullying, then by all means they should investigate it. But teachers shouldn’t be casually checking out student Facebook pages to see if they’re being made fun of.
Overall, I’m glad that the board is taking the time to discuss this issue. It’s only going to get more prevalent in the future, and there needs to be a set of policies in place that address what areas schools can influence and which just have to be left alone or that parents have to be encouraged to address.