Student-teacher social media interactions lead to gray areas


Developing relationships with teachers is essential for students to not only enjoy their classroom experiences, but to potentially create a bond with the subject in question that will serve them down the road. After all, according to a study done by the vice president of the American Institutes for Research, teachers are told to make their classroom a comfortable, relaxing space and to make themselves open for conversation relating to the course. However, as the stressful atmosphere of the classroom diminishes, a new concern takes form: Should the relationship between students and teachers venture outside of the classroom?

Undeniably, lines blur when the question of how close students and teachers should allow themselves to become arises. After all, in the digital age of social media, where all information is only a few Google searches away, it’s easier than ever to form closer relationships digitally, and therefore easier than ever for students and teachers to have private contact.

“As a teacher at Carmel High, I’m an obligated reporter,” Carmel High School art teacher Steven Russell says. “If I followed a student and I saw something that I needed to report, it’d be mandatory for me.”

Russell, who runs a popular Instagram account in which he shares his art, has one of the largest student followings of all CHS teachers, but makes a point to not follow any students back until after their graduation. He’s created a personal policy for himself, noting the possibility of encroaching on students’ personal lives.

However, would this mean that teachers getting a window into their students’ lives is too personal of a relationship with students?

There is not a mandated policy in regard to social media interactions among teachers and students by the school district. However, CHS Principal Rick Lopez speculates that gray areas within the classification of “social media” make it difficult to set specific protocols and policies, but any app that make it difficult to hold students or teachers accountable for what they’ve said, most notably Snapchat, would be inappropriate for use.

However, when we go off the screen, the blurring of these lines may only increase.

“We’re working on guidelines as to how teachers interact with students,” Lopez says. “Social media is a big thing, so it’s something that we as a district need to develop good practices for—if there are restrictions, what they are and anything else.”

Time between students and teachers is a useful time for students to work on their skills one-on-one with the teacher; therefore, stripping students of this right could detract from valuable time for learning.

Knowing this, what’s to be done about interactions limited on social media?

“Many years ago, I remember there was a teacher requesting that other faculty members not friend their students on Facebook,” math teacher Jody Roberts recalls. “They were posting things they were doing in their free time, and while they might not have been illegal, or even necessarily wrong, it still could have been perceived as an overly close relationship.”

Because of this, some argue that social media makes it easier for students and teachers to have inappropriate contact. One federal report from 2014 reports that schools fail to protect students due to “district cover-ups, lack of training, incomplete teacher training and lack of guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.”

“Although states and school districts are taking some positive steps,” the report says, “current efforts are clearly not enough.”

A reported 781 cases of students engaging in sexual relationships with students were revealed by the Washington Post in 2014; the national average reveals that roughly 15 students every week report sexual from faculty members—a relatively low number when compared with the 3.2 million teachers employed in the U.S.—but still a high enough number to warrant paying attention to. When coupled with the statistic that two out of three instances of sexual abuse go unreported by victims, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the statistics might be worse than some think.

More gray areas make themselves apparent in setting any sort of boundaries.

“For instance, if we had a rule that forbid students from interacting with students after the 3 p.m. bell rings, that could easily destroy good relationships between students and teachers,” Lopez notes.

Some students note using this after school time to get one-on-one help with their teachers. If the district employed policies that didn’t allow for this time, some students wouldn’t be able to get the help they need.

“I know that I use after school time to my advantage,” sophomore Emma Valdez notes. “If this time were to be taken away, I would have to come in at office hours.”

Valdez says that many teachers often ask for students to come in at office hours, meaning that they often have to decide which class is the most important to them.

However, regulations toward inappropriate teacher relations with students appear to be limited to on-campus computers or other devices.

“Inappropriate use of district technology may result in a cancellation of a user’s privilege, disciplinary actions, and/or legal actions in accordance to the law,” the policy states.

Meanwhile, assistant principal Debbi Puente points to the CHS student handbook, explaining that, in the case that students have social media interactions with their teachers, it should be treated as though they’re interacting with teachers directly.

“The policy gets into sexual harassment, dress code and student behavior,” Puente notes. “If a student wants to [communicate with] a teacher on social media, they should follow these regulations.”

However, students are unsure whether social media should follow the same regulations as their school does.

“I don’t want to think about social media as a school-related thing,” junior Kelly Wong says. “It’s not something I want to actively think about when I’m posting about my life.”