Principles for Districts’ Social Media Policies

By Scott McLeod/School Administrator, August 2015


School districts nationwide are struggling to keep up as digital devices and online communication environments become ubiquitous for students and educators. As superintendents and school boards try to keep their social media policies both current and relevant, several guiding principles can help with the process. 

Focus on behavior, not technology. We often treat digital and online channels as being inherently worse than their analog counterparts. Digital forms of communication don’t cause negative behaviors by students or staff but, compared to traditional written or verbal forms, they can increase the speed, scale and scope of the situation when those behaviors occur. 

School districts’ policy focus always should be on students’ and staff’s underlying actions, not the technologies themselves. We don’t need Facebook or texting policies; we need behavior policies.

Avoid redundancy. Many social media policies cover a laundry list of behaviors, including cheating, bullying, harassment, defamation, academic honesty, distraction, disruption, misuse of district equipment, improper fraternization, violation of privacy or confidentiality and other inappropriate conduct. But your district’s policy handbook likely has numerous places where these behaviors already are addressed. Do you need the redundancy of a separate social media or acceptable use policy or can some modest wording tweaks ensure the existing policies include digital communication channels and environments?

Lean toward learning opportunities, not just punishment. Many social media policies are quick to penalize students or staff for behavioral infractions. Remember, we all are learning what it means to operate in hyperconnected spaces in which anyone can be a content creator and reach audiences on a global scale. Digital, online and mobile are very different from analog, face-to-face and place-bound. It’s easy to make mistakes out of ignorance, not just willfulness.

Whenever possible, social media policy consequences should frame miscues as learning, conversation, and reparation opportunities, not just punishment, in order to truly effectuate long-term behavioral changes.

Don’t overreach. Numerous districts have gotten into trouble for overreaching with their social media and acceptable use policies. If misbehavior occurs using district computing equipment or environments, it usually is easily addressed by school policies. If misbehavior occurs off campus using personal cell phones or computers, however, those often are a completely different story. Consult legal counsel before creating policies that attempt to punish students or staff for off-campus digital speech or conduct. You don’t want to be the next district paying a six-figure legal settlement because you violated someone’s Constitutional rights. 

Consider your tone. Districts everywhere are doing everything they can to put digital tools into the hands of students and staff because of the powerful learning opportunities that they enable. And then they usually create policy documents that hector and admonish youth and educators about all of the things they shouldn’t do. Tone is important. You don’t want to undermine your own efforts.

Consider what policies of empowerment and encouragement might look like versus districts’ typical lists of No’s and Can’ts and Don’ts, particularly if you want to encourage innovative, technology-using educators to work for you instead of someone else.

Don’t be agoraphobic. Humans are inherently social and we make meaning together. Connection to each other and the outside world often is educationally desirable. The learning power that can occur in environments that are “locked down” less tightly is vastly greater than those that filter or block outside experts, communities of interest or other classrooms.

Balancing behavioral concerns with empowerment desires can be tricky when it comes to formulating district policy. If we get it right, our students and educators will be empowered and supported to do amazing things with social media and other learning technologies.

Scott McLeod is the director of innovation for the Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency in Pocahontas, Iowa. E-mail: Twitter: @mcleod. He blogs at www.dangerously​