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Building a Safe Cyber-Environment

At one time, educators needed to worry only about the physical environment within the school building. Today, however, the learning and social environment extends beyond the physical due to the use of cyberspace. Electronic and social media have become a significant part of all of our lives requiring that roles and expectations be redefined. Undoubtedly, additional social media technologies, tools and devices will be developed in the future, and will continue to grow in sophistication and usefulness. In a matter of only a few years, technology has profoundly changed the nature of communication forever, and is already a preferred means of communication among children, youth and young adults. The skills learned in social networking – cooperation, collaboration, the management of information, organization, communication, etc. – are key skills for current students as they prepare for the totally connected world they not only experience now, but will also have to navigate in future employment and professional work. Social networks and constructive communities of learning can expand and enrich the learning environment to not only make it more interesting, but also more applied and relevant for the students.

Nevertheless, social media can, and has been misused and employed to facilitate communication among youth and between adults and youth in ways that are inappropriate, violate boundaries, and do not reflect the standards of visibility or accountability. The 24/7 nature of social media communications blurs many boundaries as our formerly private spaces become more public. Questions of liability for educators cannot be ignored. Thus, efforts at building a safe school environment must also take the cyber-environment into account.

Some school districts and states have taken a hard-line approach and banned student cell phones, blocked or filtered topics on social networking sites, prohibited educators from connecting with students on social media in any way, or restricted classroom use unless the sites could be viewed by school administrators and students’ parents – only to have the laws repealed when challenged. In other states and districts, including Massachusetts, superintendents and school boards have solicited input from teachers, Information Technology (IT) personnel, school legal counsel and others to help craft social media policies that can prevent misuse, but not interfere with the educational benefits of the technology. These “acceptable and responsible use” policies and guidelines tend to focus on prevention and training rather than solely on prohibition and consequences. They also take the approach that students need to learn how to be responsible users, make informed choices, and be held accountable for their behaviors.

The guidance described above advocates for guidelines and policies that foster “digital literacy and citizenship”– regarding the student as a person responsible for ethical and healthy use of the Internet and mobile devices. It also encourages teachers to help students acquire the skills for responsible use, avoid inappropriate contact and malicious sites, and acquire the skills to assess the validity of information found on the Internet or passed along by others via social networking.

The National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) also provides a model code of ethics for educators 41 , as does the Association of American Educators. 42 Each school no doubt has, or will want to develop its own code of ethics and social media policy to guide staff in what can be an otherwise ambiguous arena.

As we seek to promote safe environments, it is important to remember that the Internet may also be used to exploit children by those who seek to sexually exploit or abuse them. In addition, cyberbullying has become a problem among peers. Therefore, educators must be sensitive that any online interactions with students do not in any way replicate the traumatic experiences they may have already had. Taking these factors into consideration, guidelines and codes of conduct related to the use of social media might include some of the following:

  • Educators should not submit “friend” requests to students or accept friend requests from them.
    • Options for educators may be to join a professional networking site (Classroom 2.0, LinkedIn, The Teacher Collaborative, edWeb, the school’s Facebook page, etc.) or create an online profile that is maintained as a professional page only. Students can then become followers or friends of this professional page. It is important that all social media interactions conform to the professional boundaries of a teacher/student relationship and that these interactions are educationally valid. 43
  • If the school sanctions accepting friend requests from students, at least one other school staff member should have access to the adult’s profile and correspondence.
  • If there is contact between educators and students, all applicable privacy settings should be used to protect the student from any content that might be inappropriate.
  • Both educators and students should be informed that any communication sent through digital methods (e.g., e-mail, social networking, Twitter, Instagram, site note, texts or posts) conforms to the professional boundary guidance in the bullets above, is not to be kept confidential and may be reported to or shared with others.

Educators are also encouraged to make clear their rules about ethical behavior and the Internet by some of the following:

  • Involve students in creating rules for Internet use.
  • Post the rules for what is acceptable within the classroom and the school. Include rules about what is not acceptable (e.g., peer to peer sharing of nude or sexually explicit photos).
  • Reinforce acceptable behavior recognizing that offenses may not always be intentional on the part of the students. (e.g., an incorrect url may bring up unintended sites).
  • Pair up students into technology buddies so that those who are more adept at technology, and use it responsibly, can assist their peers.
  • Model appropriate behavior in one’s own cyber use.
  • Help students see parallels between unethical behavior in their daily lives and on the Internet. (Adapted from Education World – Tools for Teaching Cyber-Ethics 44 ).

Schools can and should also partner with parents by asking them for their input and for assistance in monitoring their children’s use of social media – whether they are at home, on vacation, or even over the summer if the students will be returning to the school in the fall. By encouraging parents to approach the school with any concerns about technology use, administrators and faculty can more quickly become aware of and address issues as they arise. Schools should also obtain a signed acknowledgement from employees (and students and their parents) that they have received and read the social media policy. Training should also be provided for faculty, staff, employees, volunteers and the students themselves on the school’s policies on the appropriate use of social media, and related issues such as cell phones and texting, and cyber-bullying.

The Safe Kids Thrive website section on Building Safe Environments has a Safe Environments Strategies 45 section that includes guidance on the safe use of technology, and a sample Electronic Communications Policy 46 that schools can download and use as a starting point. The aforementioned Checklist for Safe Environments 47 also contains technology-related items that should be included as part of the school’s safe environment framework. Additional detail on all the above can also be found on the Safe Kids Thrive website Section entitled Ensuring Safe Physical Environments and Safe Technology. 48

Additional policy guidance and information, including sample code of conduct language and acknowledgement forms can be found in the following:

Guidelines for Implementation of Acceptable Use Policy for Digital Information 49 , Communication, and Technology Resources, Boston Public Schools (2019-2020)

Responsible Technology Use in Public Schools, Massachusetts Educational Technology Advisory Council (2010) 50

Guide to the Boston Public Schools, Using Technology in School, Student Responsible Use (2020-2022) 51

41 https://www.nasdtec.net/page/MCEE_Doc

42 https://www.aaeteachers.org/index.php/about-us/aae-code-of-ethics

43 For additional information, see Connect Safely: “Educators Guide to Social Media” (2017) by Larry Magid. (https://www.connectsafely.org/eduguide/)

44 https://www.educationworld.com/a_tech/tech/tech055.shtml

45 https://safekidsthrive.org/prevention-topics/safe-environments/safe-environment-strategies-technology/

46 https://safekidsthrive.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/HYPERTEXT_Appendix-10_Ensuring-Safe-Physical-Environments-and-Safe-Technology_Sample-Electronic-Communications-Policy.pdf

47 https://safekidsthrive.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/HYPERTEXT_Appendix-10_Ensuring-Safe-Physical-Environments-and-Safe-Technology_Checklist-for-Safe-Environment-1.pdf

48 https://safekidsthrive.org/the-report/key-sections/section-4-ensuring-safe-physical-environments-and-safe-technology/

49 https://www.bostonpublicschools.org/domain/2330

50 https://studylib.net/doc/7600565/responsible-technology-use-in-public-schools

51 https://www.bostonpublicschools.org/Page/8352


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