Tri-City schools create rules to keep up with technology

RICHLAND -- Most people are happy to get a friend request on Facebook. Pam Kehret often cringes.

When a request comes from one of her students, the longtime Hanford High teacher knows she has to meet the student face-to-face to explain why she can't be friends on the social media site.

That policy -- to never accept a friend request from a student -- is Kehret's choice. It's a choice that teachers everywhere ponder, and one that some school districts across the country now mandate.

Following this national trend, the Pasco and Richland school districts introduced new measures this summer to ensure online interactions between teachers and students are appropriate.

Kennewick launched a set of recommendations on the subject at the start of last school year.

None of the districts prohibits teachers being Facebook friends with students.

There's no question what's allowed on district hardware. That's settled: Computers on all three school districts' networks are equipped with filters blocking social media. Neither staff nor students can access Facebook on school computers.

But students have plenty of opportunity for online contact outside of school.

School-age children spend more than seven hours a day using electronic devices, and three-quarters of them have an online profile, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The worry is not only that illegal acts might be initiated on Facebook, but also that teachers aren't mindful of what's posted on their own Facebook walls. Some teachers are fresh out of college, and news reports abound of parents upset over pictures of beer-swilling or scantily clad educators.

That's why school districts have taken to regulating what teachers do in their free time. A Massachusetts district recently forbade its teachers outright to friend students on Facebook. Louisiana state government passed a bill directing the state's school districts to allow online student-teacher exchanges only on district email accounts.

Area schools not strict

Efforts to control online behavior of teachers aren't that strict.

Kennewick School District has no language in its employee regulations that specifically addresses online communications. Instead, it has sent out a PowerPoint presentation to its principals for the past two summers, to be shown to staff at the beginning of the school year.

The presentation gives teachers tips such as, "Don't send messages to students regarding their social life," and "Be careful that (all interactions with) students are related to school work." It also advises against being friends with students on social media sites.

But these are just recommendations, not policies.

The district doesn't regulate teachers' internet use at home, but will certainly respond to any reports of inappropriate online interactions on an individual basis, said district spokeswoman Lorraine Cooper.

Pasco amended district policy No. 5260 this summer to include the words: "Staff members are prohibited from inappropriate online socializing with students." The policy also directs staff members to maintain professional standards online.

Richland School District worded its response to a changing internet landscape in greater detail. Last spring, the board asked the district's attorney, Galt Pettett, to draft amendments to its personnel rules.

"I looked around the country and saw what language I liked," Pettett said.

He took pieces of the Louisiana law and some stringent rules passed closer to home: In Idaho, districts are restricting teachers' means of communicating with students after several scandals.

Pettett's final draft, which the board approved in mid-September, says all interactions between a teacher and a student -- even those conducted on personal web pages -- are "an extension of the classroom." It tells teachers to keep all communication professional and transparent, and specifically prohibits making comments of a sexual nature in such interactions.

Walking a fine line

The school districts and teacher unions strongly suggest teachers not be Facebook friends with students at all. The districts have to walk a fine line: Employers can't tell employees what to do in their free time, as long as they don't break any laws.

"This policy was written to be legally compliant while considering our constituents' rights," said Marilee Scarbrough, director of policy for the Washington State School Directors' Association. "This is an emerging area of the law; it's based on the best information available at this point."

Kehret, who's been a teacher for 26 years, doesn't feel she needs her employer to tell her how to be professional around kids.

"This is perhaps inappropriate for the district to govern," she said. "I am uncomfortable with an employer saying, 'I'm going to regulate your online conversations."

Again, Kehret does not accept friend requests from current students. She takes her responsibilities as an educator seriously, she said, and points to state laws that prohibit inappropriate contact between students and teachers.

Kehret said she knows her online profile might be seen by people outside her circle of real-life friends. "I'm very careful about pictures I post or things I say in a public forum such as Facebook."

Maintaining boundaries as a teacher was hard enough before the advent of social media, she said. Now, she said, it "makes the student-teacher relationship difficult."

But she doesn't believe in separating the personal from the professional entirely. "Teaching is a multifaceted job," Kehret said. "You're also police and mom sometimes."

To fulfill those functions, she has conversed with students via text message or personal e-mail, but always making sure parents were aware of the communication.

She knows bad things happen online from personal experience. Her own daughter -- then 14 -- was accosted on MySpace four years ago. The girl told her mother about the online predator, but only after the third message arrived, asking for pictures.

"It scared the bejesus out of me," Kehret said.

Some of Kehret's classes center on computers. She said she not only instructs students on the use of software; she also teaches them how to be safe online.

Students more aware

Technology and health classes in Richland and elsewhere cover some of that ground too, and kids are well aware.

"It's all stuff we already know," said Sidney Bowen, an eighth grader at Enterprise Middle School in West Richland.

Bowen isn't on Facebook -- her parents won't let her. They don't want their daughter's picture online, she said. She understands the concern, although "it is annoying," she said.

Fellow Enterprise student Sirena Sands, who's in seventh grade, is active on Facebook, mostly to stay in touch with family living elsewhere in the country, she said.

Some of her friends have tried to befriend teachers on Facebook, but "many don't accept it," she said. She hasn't tried to make such contact.

"It'd be weird to be friends," Sands said. "There's a lot of personal stuff on teachers' pages."