Teachers union sues district over proposed social media policy

6:55 PM, Nov 16, 2010   |    comments
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Bradenton, Florida -- Many school districts are proposing guidelines, even policy, limiting a teacher or school staff's contact with students on the Internet, including social media websites. Some districts go as far as restricting what district employees can post on their personal sites.

"It's our position the code of ethics applies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," says Scott Martin, attorney for the Manatee School District.

When a student "friends" Biology teacher Jennifer O'Connell on her Facebook page, she shoots back this message: "I have a no student policy on Facebook. You can always re-friend me when you graduate."

O'Connor says teachers and school staff need to use common sense when expressing their feelings regarding their jobs. "Would you stand on a street corner and say, 'I hate that kid in the 4th period class?' You wouldn't do that. Then why would you do that on Facebook?" says O'Connor.

She adds, "As a teacher, I have a code of ethics. I can't go around saying unprofessional things about my co-workers and students, even the community as a whole."

The Manatee school district's proposed policy would prohibit teachers from posting anything that could shine a "bad light" on the district, teachers or students. Teachers would be required to get parental permission in writing if they are to contact students through the social media or email.

Teachers union officials say while they support having guidelines, they say this proposed policy goes too far. "This policy is over reaching and we feel it's intrusive," says Patricia Barber, president of the Manatee Education Association.

The MEA has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the proposed policy, saying it violates a teacher's freedom of speech rights.  "Public employees have the same right as any taxpayer to express their feelings about the school district as an entity," explains Barber.

She says the union has tried negotiating with the district. "We have had communications with them, given them every opportunity to address our concerns, and they have not responded to the concerns we have raised," says Barber.

School district attorney Scott Martin says school staff is limited to what they can say on social media sites. "If they're making comments, 'I hate my job, I hate my students' that doesn't fall under first amendment protection," he explains.

The Bayshore High School teacher says the union's lawsuit is premature. More teacher input is needed. Both the teachers union and school district officials say they hope to resolve their differences out of court.

Isabel Mascarenas, 10 News

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