Education

To avoid inappropriate messages with students, Wake County teachers to get new rules

Crossroads Flex High School teacher Keith Lindsay works with students Kevan Kahoussi, left and Josue Deleon on Sept. 21, 2016 in Cary, N.C.  A new policy being considered by the Wake County school board would set rules on how employees communicate electronically with students.
Crossroads Flex High School teacher Keith Lindsay works with students Kevan Kahoussi, left and Josue Deleon on Sept. 21, 2016 in Cary, N.C. A new policy being considered by the Wake County school board would set rules on how employees communicate electronically with students. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Wake County school employees are about to get some new rules about how to electronically communicate with students to try to make sure things don't get inappropriate.

The Wake County school board gave initial approval this week to an updated policy on staff and student relations that says employees are only supposed to communicate electronically with students on district-controlled services. The policy spells out limited exceptions when employees can use their own personal devices to contact students.

“We emphasize so much the relationship between teacher and student, and this gives great parameters to our staff and to our teachers on just what is appropriate and how to build having good relationships, because that’s really important," school board member Kathy Hartenstine said before Tuesday's vote.

The board could give final approval to the policy on May 1.

Lauren Genesky, an English teacher at Millbrook High School in Raleigh, said the new policy won't be a problem for her. But she said teachers already know to be careful when they communicate with their students.

“Teachers need to have good digital citizenship skills," Genesky said. "I’d hope teachers are very cautious with students about what they’re posting out there. "

The policy comes as some teachers in Wake County and nationally have been charged with having inappropriate sexual relationships with students. But Lisa Luten, a Wake County schools spokeswoman, said the policy isn't motivated by any specific incidents.

Wake has been updating its policy manual, taking and adapting suggested policies from the N.C. School Boards Association.

The new policy says employees are prohibited from using "non-school controlled electronic communication to interact with students" unless approved by a supervisor and the parent. Platforms using content that disappears, such as Snapchat, would be prohibited.

The policy says communications must be related to an educational purpose and through a school system-provided platform where messages can be archived for at least three years. Communication can also occur on a platform approved by the school administration if messages can be made available to a supervisor or a parent.

"The issue is student safety and transparency," school board member Bill Fletcher said at the March 27 committee meeting where the policy was reviewed. "What allows us to assure that we’ve got student safety No. 1 and transparency of the communications so that it always remains above board.”

The policy lays out cases where employees can use personal devices to communicate with students, including:

The communication is used on a limited basis, serves an educational purpose and is simultaneously copied to a supervisor and, upon request, to the parent;

The communication is necessary in a "bona fide emergency." It has to be disclosed to a supervisor and parent as soon as reasonably possible;

The communication is from a relationship or association outside of the school setting (such as being neighbors, relatives or family friends) and occurs with the consent of the parent;

The communication is for and limited to logistical information associated with an approved school related activity.

“The policy is trying to walk the line on what’s permissible and not duly restricting reasonable communications," Jeff Koweek, a school district director of human resources, said in an interview.

The policy drew mixed reaction from some teachers.

Lee Quinn, a humanities teacher at Broughton High School in Raleigh, said the policy was impractical, unnecessary, inefficient and unenforceable.

"This policy seems like a solution in search of a problem," he said.

But Angie Scioli, a social studies teacher at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh, said the new policy drew support when she talked about it with her colleagues. She said teachers like how it provides more guidance in how to interact with students.

"We like the policy because it will quit putting teachers and coaches at risk," Scioli said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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