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Texas officials review social media contact between teachers and students

June 17, 2016  |  Posted by: JammedUp Staff
Texas officials review social media contact between teachers and students

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One month ago the entire country learned about the 24-year old teacher, Alexandria Vera, who allegedly had a sexual, romantic relationship with one of her male students at Stovall Middle School. The story made national headlines and photos from her Facebook page ultimately went viral.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Vera and the student began messaging each other on Instagram, and the relationship soon after progressed which lead to the alleged sexual abuse. Vera even became pregnant with the young boy’s child.

According to the Texas Education Agency, as of last week, 162 teachers in Texas had inappropriate relationships with students; compared to the fiscal year of 2014-2015, where 188 cases were reported.

In 2007, the Senate Bill 9 was passed which required teachers across the state of Texas to be fingerprinted, and now every time a teacher is arrested, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is notified.

Many are wondering if teachers should be prohibited from interacting with their students at all via social media. Although it seems like an innocent practice, it can have grave consequences if it leads to inappropriate behavior.

As more and more millennials, who have used social media for years, enter into teaching, it is very easy for serious boundaries to be violated.

Michael Keeny, a member of the Aldine Independent School District where Vera was employed, indicated that only district-approved means of social media are to be used when communicating with students, and communication can only occur with a parent’s consent.

Employees are held to the same standards in their own utilization and management of their social media profiles. Obviously, Vera was utilizing social media that was directly in violation of the district’s rules and standards.

Some area educators have reported that teachers are given specific instructions to follow by their districts that blatantly forbid them from interacting with students via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or any other sites.

In its policy manual, the Houston Independent School District asserts its understanding of how powerful social media is in this day and age, stating: “The district recognizes the powerful impact that social media can have on education. The user participation and sharing of information inherent in these media can be beneficial to students and teachers; and when used responsibly and safely, they may be effectively integrated into the educational environment to support traditional instruction.”

The policy further reads: “In accordance with administrative regulations, a certified or licensed employee, or any other employee designated in writing by the Superintendent or designee, may use social media to communicate with currently enrolled students about matters within the scope of the employee’s professional responsibilities.”

Dan Binder, a local teacher who works at a private high school, says that teachers at their institution are told to use the website Remind to communicate with students outside of school hours.

Remind.com, previously known as Remind101, is a communications program that has been built for teachers and is currently in use in approximately half of all U.S. public schools. The site allows teachers to communicate with students regarding classroom activities and school functions. The website allows no personal information to be exchanged, and all communication is logged by the program. A teacher may not edit or delete his or her messages, which creates a sense of accountability for these educators.

Another local Houston teacher, Geoff Widmier, prefers to use the Remind site along with district email.

He said, “Personally, as a male teacher in this day and age, I feel like I have to be extra careful to not even give people a reason to suspect anything. I keep my worlds very separate.”

A high school teacher said he has colleagues who use Facebook and Twitter as a learning tool but refuses to use it for work purposes. In an interview, Biles said “I try to keep my personal and professional lives as separate as possible. However with me being in a band and kids being as resourceful as they are, sometimes my alter ego is revealed.”

Cypress-Fairbanks school district’s employee handbook notes that teachers are allowed to communicate with parents and students via cell phone or other apps pertaining only to school or extracurriculars. However, they are prohibited from sending texts or any other form of messages between the hours of 11:30 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Widely-used apps like Snachat, which erases every photo and conversation within 24 hours, is something that teachers should unquestionably stay away from.

The Texas Education Agency’s information specialist, DeEtta Culberson believes that the steady rise in inappropriate teacher-student relationships is attributed to social media.

When situations occur, such as Vera’s inappropriate sexual relationship, the TEA can take action, implementing punishments such as revoking teaching certifications. Culbertson reported that although social media enables easier access to students at all hours of the day, it can also help in pinpointing improper relationships.

She said, “There is more awareness, so there is more reporting.”

This week, the Association of Texas Professional Educators sternly cautioned teachers that any inappropriate communication, such as through social media, is a direct violation of their Code of Ethics.

Stephanie Jacksis, ATPE Media Relations Specialist, said in a statement: “Our number one priority is to keep kids safe. It’s never okay for a teacher to prey on a student.”

“Even one incident is one too many. That’s why our association takes every opportunity presented to educate teachers and to prepare teachers before they get in the classroom,” said Jacksis.

The ATPE also told teachers that they should encourage parents to monitor their child’s activity on social media. They further recommend that teachers should make have a separate account, aside from their personal ones, that should be used strictly for class purposes.

Melissa Brubaker, another teacher in the area, also says that she communicated with students via work email and district approved apps, such as Remind, and she always keeps the private chat function turned off.

Brubaker said: “It then becomes one-way communication to my entire group of students. Reminders to turn in homework, tutorial times and things like that. Any private communication is only done through my work email.”

She once, however, created an Instagram profile for their class pet, a guinea pig whose name was Hemingway, but she made sure to get it approved by the school administration first.

Brubaker, like a majority of teachers, prefers to keep her personal accounts private. The educator said that the few who have acted inappropriately with students have tarnished the profession of all teachers.

She said, “It’s not always seen as a reputable career anymore. …Young teachers have an ugly stigma in the media because a few have done such awful things.”

Brubaker added, “My priority is to educate children, and for me, I’ve always seen students, even the seniors in high school, as children.”

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