Tech Leadership

‘Friending’ Students: A Case of Community Values


The law usually lags behind society when it comes to defining and regulating questionable behavior. Nowhere is this more in evidence than the issue of teachers and other educators “friending” students on Facebook.

Embedded in this simple question are complex value judgments that the law and the teaching profession have not yet resolved, but here are some suggestions to consider.

The odds are low that you’ll find yourself with a sex scandal on your hands from a teacher friending a student. Still, a lot of online banter between teachers and students starts off innocently, but casually drifts into personal matters that we all would agree are off limits in any teacher-student relationship.

Facebook is certainly a more convenient venue for this sort of misbehavior than has existed in the past, but we are kidding ourselves to think this problem didn’t exist before the Internet. What the easy access and impulsivity of this new medium have done is lay bare a long-standing failure to stake out the acceptable boundaries of teacher-student relationships away from school.

Unique Characteristics
So let’s begin with some questions that have nothing to do with online behavior, per se, but bring the social networking issues into sharper focus.

Is it ever acceptable for staff and students to communicate with each other outside of school? If so, for what purposes and with what limitations? You’ll be surprised at the differences of opinion these questions may provoke within your leadership team, but how you answer them will carry you most of the way to resolving the friending problem.

I disagree with those who suggest there should be a uniform standard across the profession governing off-campus relationships with students. My own experience representing school districts large and small persuades me the correct approach is the one that reflects the unique values of your school community.

In close-knit districts where most staff members live locally, teachers may play many roles in the lives of students, such as scoutmaster, youth group leader, recreation sports coach, neighbor or relative. Off-campus interaction may be viewed more tolerantly in these communities than in others, where the only entrée to students is the school itself. Even in-school relationships between staff and students may call for different answers, depending on whether the employee is a nurse, counselor or athletic coach.

Policy Dictates
Once you’ve settled on your baseline expectations for teacher-student relationships outside of school, the task of confronting the social networking issues will be far less daunting.

If your district believes access to teachers on Facebook has value, I advise against teachers friending current students. Even among adults who use Facebook, friending can be a dicey exercise, fraught with ambiguity and unstated expectations. Are you now a member of your new friend’s inner circle? Is it a personal slight to ignore a friend request? There is no general agreement on these matters.

What we do know is that friending usually allows one to view your entire Facebook profile, including personal data, photos and at least some portion of your other friends’ Facebook profiles as well, so it’s not a choice to be taken lightly.

Introducing children into the mix only heightens the confusion about roles and responsibilities. In school, we would hope that teachers are viewed by their students as authority figures and role models, but without some clear ground rules laid down by the teacher in advance, wouldn’t friending of students tend to erode their image as such? And what are the potential legal implications if the teacher views a picture of a young friend engaging in risky behaviors or a student passes along to the principal a thoughtless and embarrassing comment the teacher posted on her Facebook wall?

We don’t know the answers yet and will have to proceed cautiously until enough cases are litigated to generate some definitive guidance from our appellate courts. In the meanwhile, teachers who recklessly fraternize with students in this online playground risk reading about themselves in tomorrow’s headlines.

Separate Purposes
A better alternative is for teachers to create separate Facebook pages specifically devoted to school-related business. Students can become “fans” without friending the teacher. Care should be taken to avoid the perception of favoritism toward those students who choose to participate.

Special rules may be appropriate for athletic coaches and extracurricular club advisers who would have reason to communicate with students after hours in the ordinary course of their duties or for school counselors who deal with students in a therapeutic capacity.

The law will afford you a fair amount of latitude to develop guidelines that reflect your school district’s values, but, once developed, the guidelines should be communicated promptly and uniformly to your staff. From a legal standpoint, employees are entitled to fair notice of work rules they could be disciplined for violating. More importantly, effective notice to the staff hopefully will prevent unprofessional behavior in the first place.

David Rubin is an education lawyer in Metuchen, N.J. E-mail: