BY JAMES RUSSELL
TRAVERSE CITY —
Students checked their phones for texts and Facebook messages in between bites of lunch at a sandwich shop near Traverse City Central High School.
Most weren't chatting with teachers.
Charley Needham, 17, only has one teacher "friend" on Facebook. His instructor uses the popular social media site to keep the class updated on assignments and homework.
"It can be helpful," said Needham, who isn't concerned about sharing information with his teacher. "Both my parents are on Facebook, so I'm not worried."
Area school districts grapple with a rapidly changing social media environment. School officials ponder how to set boundaries on appropriate contact between students and teachers while trying to embrace new classroom technologies.
Indications of inappropriate texting outside of school between a student and a Traverse City teacher prompted an investigation that led to a criminal charge against former West Senior High School teacher and coach Lisa Placek. Authorities charged her last month with first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a 15-year-old student.
The incident puts focus on social media and how schools use technology.
"Social media and technology are going to be used more and more for learning," said Traverse City Area Public Schools Superintendent Steve Cousins. "Whenever there are advances, they get used by some people in inappropriate ways, but that's not a reason to not use them. It's not a reason to ratchet them down and prohibit their growth."
Kingsley Area Schools board members are expected to vote Monday on a new policy to limit teacher and student interaction on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
The new rules would restrict such communication to school-related business.
"Teachers are naturally concerned when policies appear to reach into personal lives, but when you look at what occurred recently around the country and the state, you have to do everything we can to protect the kids," said Kingsley Superintendent Keith Smith. "It's basically common sense, but with recent events that have occurred, these areas need to be spelled out a little more."
Kingsley and TCAPS officials began exploring policy revisions late last year. Kingsley's review was prompted by a state association's recommended guidelines issued last fall.
TCAPS administrators are considering restrictions similar to Kingsley's proposal. Traverse City's current policy does not restrict social media interactions between students and teachers outside of school.
"We're getting the stakeholders together to determine what would be the best guidelines so people can still leverage social media for learning, but making sure guidelines are in place to keep kids safe," Cousins said.
Now, teachers make their own boundaries without explicit guidelines on social media relationships outside of school.
"Certainly in this day and age things have happened — even in our own community — and people have to draw their own lines. But I think most people are well aware of those lines," said Brandi Reynolds, TCAPS' technology curriculum coordinator.
She sets a strict policy for herself when it comes to Facebook and students.
"I keep my settings very private so people can't even search," she said. "I have a very distinct line where I'm not friends with any students."
In Kingsley, Smith sets firm restrictions on his social media interactions, too.
"I don't have a single contact on Facebook with anyone in town that I work with or live with," Smith said. "I just have friends from out of the area. If they're in Kingsley, I'd just as soon stop by and say hi."
Smith said it's important for educators to be aware of their public role.
"Working in education, you have to be very cognizant and careful what you communicate and how you communicate because of how readily things get passed out in public," he said.
Cousins said it's impossible to monitor all online interactions outside the school network, but "99.9 percent" of staff members understand what is and is not appropriate.
"A lot of this comes down to the choices that people will make outside of school," he said. "I don't know that guidelines really are going to change the equation at all ...; appropriate uses are a matter of common sense."
Embracing social media
More than 80 percent of the 1,400 Central students have a school-issued netbook computer.
Reynolds said the school blocks Facebook, but other social media technology is an increasingly important classroom tool.
Moodle, a course management program, keeps students and teachers connected by allowing them to post questions and answers online. Google Docs lets students work together on projects.
"You don't have as much control for those types of things on Facebook. The mind-set is that it's for school ... it's not a social thing," she said.
Reynolds said teachers are even looking at cell phones as tools rather than a classroom distraction. One program lets instructors poll students to gauge their readiness for new content or how well they absorbed a recent lesson. She said technology engages students in a way that more traditional methods can't.
"I tried it once in a lesson with a class, where I posed a really difficult question about the moral and economic justification of the Louisiana Purchase," she said. "It only allows 160 characters, and they were upset because they had so much to say that they couldn't fit in 160 characters."
Students lunching recently at the sandwich shop said some teachers and coaches use Facebook to keep in touch, but the interaction is limited to school topics.
Drew Mayo, 16, said his math teacher posts what the class will study the next day. Ali Walker, 17, said her travel-basketball coach sends updates on schedules and practices.
James Newland, 18, said his coach created a Facebook group to keep the team up to date on practice times and meets. He's not worried teachers might learn too much about his personal life.
"I don't put anything on there I don't want people to see," he said.