Social media policies in the works for Manatee school district

MANATEE -- Two policies being developed by the school district will address social media use for work purposes and personal time for school district employees.

After examples of social media misuse in the district, such as the Rogers Garden Elementary teacher who posted a disparaging comment about a student on her Facebook page, Manatee County School Board Chairman Harry Kinnan asked Superintendent Tim McGonegal to draft a social media policy at a July school board meeting.

The district currently does not have a social media policy, or an extensive acceptable use policy that addresses social media use.

Scott Martin, assistant superintendent of district support services, is drafting an acceptable use policy that includes how teachers should use work equipment, including communication with their students. The policy, among many other things, will outline social media use at home or at work when a teacher is using the platforms for work purposes. School board attorney John Bowen is drafting a social media policy that applies to employee social media use during personal time.

Both proposals would apply to all school district employees, not just teachers, and though Bowen and Martin are doing some of the research for the policies, they plan for McGonegal to propose the policies to the school board at an upcoming meeting.

Last spring, Lauren Orban, a Rogers Garden Elementary teacher, posted a comment on her Facebook page that one of her students "may be the evolutionary link between orangutans and humans," and identified the student by his initials. Several other teachers also commented on the post.

Orban received a verbal reprimand from her principal, though the students'student's mother wanted further action taken. The state Office of Professional Practices Services decided not

to take disciplinary action against Orban.

All district teachers are expected to comply with standards of behavior outlined in the code of ethics and principles of professional conduct outlined in the Florida Statutes and State Board of Education Rules, Bowen said. These standards include not exposing students to unnecessary embarrassment or disparagement and not harassing students based on factors such as race, religion or background.

There is no mention specifically of social media in these codes, but Bowen doesn't think the district needs to outline specific online behavior as acceptable or unacceptable. Rather, he said, the social media policy will require teachers to apply those ethics and principles to all social media use, even during their personal time.

"No, I don't think it's going to be anything new," Bowen said. "It's going to be reminding all employees that you need to be aware that social media relates (to the principles)."

These expectations have been in existence, he says. They are clear. People just haven't applied them to social media use.

"We hope to bring that to everyone's attention," Bowen said. "What you say ... wherever ... is a problem if it violates these principles and is public knowledge."

The district's tried enacting such policies before. In 2010, an acceptable use policy with a large social media component was drafted, but the Manatee Education Association filed a lawsuit against it. The association said the policy, which prohibited teachers from posting negative comments or photos about the district, violated teachers' freedom of speech rights.

"The original acceptable use policy over-reached their authority, and went into the venue of teachers' personal lives," said Patricia Barber, president of the Manatee Education Association.

The group would later withdraw the lawsuit with the understanding that the district would meet with the union to address concerns.

"We decided to go back to the drawing board and involve the union in the entire policy," Martin said.

Martin said the district has gone over the union's concerns and invited them to review previous drafts of a acceptable use policy for the district. The current one is a product of those discussions.

Martin said the old mandate that teachers cannot post negative comments about the district has been stripped from this new version. Teachers will not be forbidden to post negatively about the district, Bowen said, unless the posts violate the code or principles. The state's principles of professional conduct states that educators "shall take reasonable precautions to distinguish between personal views and those of any educational institution or organization with which the individual is affiliated."

Barber said she is eager to read Bowen's media policy.

"I can't speculate on what would be acceptable until I can see what the proposal looks like," she said.

Bowen hopes to distribute his draft to district administrators this week as well as Martin and the education association for feedback. Martin hopes that once the two policies are studied, they can be proposed together by McGonegal.

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.