School districts and those who work in them are finding social media sites — like Facebook, Twitter and others — as useful ways to communicate with parents and community members.
And now, the Champaign school district has its own social media policy for employees.
The school board passed the policy Monday, and it addresses expectations for employees on social media sites, as well as for email, text messaging and using the school district's network.
School district spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart, who is the district's community relations coordinator, helped write the policy, as did school attorney Tommy Lockman and Director of Educational Technology Dave Hohman.
They looked at other districts' policies and created one tailored to the Champaign school district's needs, Stuart said. They consider it a framework for using various forms of electronic communication. The resulting policy is meant to be informative for staff members about district expectations when it comes to using social media and the school district's network, Lockman said. It's meant to protect employees, as well as parents and students.
It outlines the district's expectations for employees emailing and texting students and for their personal social media presences.
For example, it recommends employees use their school district email for all school-related correspondence, and personal email for all personal business.
Using school district email "protects the employee by creating and preserving a record so that an employee's words may not be misconstrued or incorrectly recalled," the policy states.
"It also allows the district to defend an employee against false or malicious allegations of wrongdoing and protect the employee from legal, political and personal attacks," the policy goes on.
The policy recommends that school district employees make their personal social media accounts private and says it can help those interested in doing so. Employees should not post materials that identify students on social networks, as well.
The policy also addresses text messaging, which "can be used to communicate with an individual or a group of individuals quickly and effectively."
District employees should be aware that text messages with students can be easily misconstrued, it says, and a teacher, coach or sponsor should make parents aware that he or she will use texting to get in touch with students "for immediate and urgent contact."
The text messaging should be limited to that purpose, the policy says.
"In such cases, the teacher, sponsor or coach shall afford the parent the opportunity to receive the same communications sent through text messaging as were received by the student," the policy states.
Lockman said the policy is "cognizant of the practical realities of using these forms of communication," and a coach or sponsor can send one text message to let athletes know about a cancelled practice, rather than making 30 phone calls.
"We didn't want to restrict those things," Lockman said, but the policy does include reminders for appropriate communication. For instance, if a student sends an employee a not-school-related or unsolicited text message, the employee should "strongly consider whether a response is warranted or would be appropriate."
Stuart said in many cases, employees are using social media and other electronic communication already, and it doesn't hurt to create guidelines.
The policy also asks anyone running a social media account affiliated with the school district to register it with the school district. Anyone who wants to start one is to let his or her building administrator know, and that person will send the proposal to Stuart.
That allows the school district to know what district-related accounts are posting, as well as provide technical support and content.
"It's about uniting us all on the same page," Stuart said, adding that the school district recognizes the value of being a part of conversations about the school district, even if they're happening on Twitter or another social media site.
There's also an expectation that the school district will become more tech-savvy as students and parents do, Stuart said.
Social media policies are becoming more common in school districts, Stuart said, and they vary from district to district.
Urbana has a policy on social media, said district spokeswoman JoAnne Geigner, but it's not exactly like Champaign's. It forbids employees from using social media on the district's network "outside the scope of an employee's job responsibilities or not part of a class activity or District Professional Development activity."
However, the school district is using various kinds of social media to connect with parents and community members, she said.
"All indications are, that's where our society is going, so we need to get the best use out of it," Geigner said.
Geigner is working on a formal communication plan for the district and in the meantime, runs the school district's Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Other employees and groups within the school district also blog and use YouTube, she said.
However, most social media sites are blocked on the school district's network, and students are not allowed to use them during school, Geigner said.
In the future, it's possible the district will look at a broader policy, Geigner said, and the school district will definitely keep abreast of changes in the way people communicate.
"We have to be aware of what students are using and what's going to be best for us," she said.
Urbana Middle School Principal Scott Woods has recently started blogging on the school's website. He also posts to a Twitter account for the school, and started the blog when he realized he wanted to expand on those tweets.
"Really, I just look at it as another way to communicate with parents," Woods said. "I think it's important that we let parents and the community know a little bit more about what's going on at school and this is an easy way to do that."
This year, all the middle school's teachers all write homework blogs, as well, Woods said.
Some teachers go as far to upload notes and screenshots from their interactive blackboards.
"A blog is a simple way for them to upload information that parents and kids can access from home," Woods said.
And Alex Valencic, who's a fourth-grade teacher at Urbana's Wiley Elementary, also blogs and tweets about what's happening in his classroom. He's found the blog a good way to connect with parents, and Twitter as a way to network and share ideas with teachers from all over.
"I've had several parents tell me they really appreciate the blog," he said, and have mentioned especially that it helps them talk about what's happening at school. "It provides information for better conversations," he said.
Valencic said he's careful never to use anyone's name other than his own,
"I think it's important to let other people decide how they want their information spread on the Internet," he said. He's also careful to blog only about the positive things happening in his classroom, even though frustrating situations happen in his classroom, too, he said.
He's been surprised at the amount of traffic some of his blog posts receive, he said.
"I get a lot of traffic on my blog during (Illinois Standard Achievement) testing," he said, and he believes visitors are wondering what's going on in his classroom or looking for ideas.
He's also found the blog gives him a written record of the day-to-day activities in his classroom.
"I can look back and see a lot of the things that we worked on," Valencic said. "I can look at what I did in May this past year and compare it to May (the year) before... It does help me keep track of what I'm doing."
Danville Superintendent Mark Denman said Danville has a policy for employees that governs social media and personal technology devices.
That policy says employees should use school-supported means of communicating with parents and students whenever possible, and employees shouldn't transmit information about students or other employees via social media without permission. Social media and personal devices should be used during personal time, the policy states, and it's not appropriate for staff members to give students and parents to access to their private information via social media or personal devices.
District employees are expected to maintain professional relationships with students, parents, other staff members and others.
Parents and students also have to sign a technology use policy, as well, Denman said.
"We have high expectations of professional use of technology by our staff, as well as (by our) students," Denman said.