PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Manatee school board considers regulating teachers' tweets, Facebook

nalund@bradenton.comSeptember 28, 2010 

BRADENTON — The Manatee County school board Monday got its first glance at a proposed policy that prohibits teachers from posting negative statements or photos about the district, employees or students on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The proposed policy, which drew a lengthy discussion during Monday’s meeting, also would require teachers to get written permission from parents if they intend to communicate with students using those sites or by personal e-mail. It would prohibit most employees from using the district’s name in online forums.

“This is pretty untested water and I would love to see how other districts have dealt with this without any freedom of speech issues arriving in a lawsuit,” said school board Chair Jane Pfeilsticker, who said she wants to make sure the board minimizes any infringement on the First Amendment.

“We’ll need to look at instances of each claim as not all speech is protected,” school board attorney John Bowen said. “We’ll have to evaluate each case. When an employee is using our networks, they have no expectancy of privacy.”

Or even when using their home personal computers, he said.

“They’re never off the clock with the code of ethics and the principles of the teaching profession,” Bowen said.

The proposed policy comes after a local middle school teacher last year posted on his Facebook page that he hated his students and his job. When district officials found out, they suspended him for five days.

Neither Sarasota, Pinellas nor Hillsborough school districts have a specific policy such as the one Manatee school officials are considering. Manatee, like many districts across the state, have social networking systems blocked from their computer systems.

Bruce Proud, business agent for the Manatee County Education Association, said lawyers for the local teachers union are reviewing the proposed policy. He said their lawyers had dealt with a similar policy in the Santa Rosa School District. School leaders there passed the policy but had to rescind it, said Santa Rosa Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick. The local teachers union threatened to sue, saying it violated teacher privacy rights.

The board scheduled a public hearing for Oct. 25 to further discuss the proposed policy. If approved, it would be in effect year round, even when school is not in session for the summer.

“We do welcome people in the field to let us know if this is going to work or if there are any problems so we can make changes by the time the public hearing comes around,” Bowen said.

Also Monday, the board scheduled an Oct. 25 public hearing on a proposed policy that would allow district officials to openly campaign on school issues that need voter approval. District leaders want school board members to advocate to residents on behalf of the extension of a “critical needs” schools tax and other issues like Amendment 8, which would ease costly class size caps set by voters a few years back.

“Our intent isn’t to become a political animal. We’ll state both sides, the pluses and the minuses and the facts as we know them,” Superintendent Tim McGonegal said.

Under the proposed policy, the ban on endorsing candidates would not change.

Board member Bob Gause said he wants to make sure the district isn’t spending taxpayer dollars on campaigning.

“For me it’s a bit of a slippery slope,” Gause said. “I don’t have a problem with staff educating people ... but I don’t think we should be spending our staff time trying to support and oppose.”

In other matters Monday, the board:

n Denied two charter school applications from Florida Charter Foundation, Inc. They were for Franklin Academy A and Franklin Academy B.

n Proclaimed October as Emergency Notification Month and encouraged residents to register their emergency contacts online at www.ToInformFamiliesFirst.org.

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