Modeling Respectful Tweeting to Students

Type: Article
Topics: School Administrator Magazine, Technology & AI

February 01, 2018

Social Media

About a year ago, the school board in the Highline Public Schools in Burien, Wash., and I decided to close and consolidate several small high schools, returning them to the comprehensive high schools they had been a decade earlier.

Emotional testimony on the issue ran high at board meetings, and student walkouts and protests followed the decision. As superintendent, I received an onslaught of angry tweets from upset students. In today’s vernacular, I was being “Twitter bombed.”

Superintendents who are active on Twitter and other social media platforms are accustomed to receiving criticism, even when it is less than kind and far from accurate. When the messages from my students became laden with expletives, however, I knew it was time to turn this tirade into a teachable moment about social media use.

I contacted the high school principal and scheduled a time to meet with the students. My goal was to answer questions and educate them on how to appropriately air grievances and make their voices heard in a productive, responsible way. Not surprisingly, I was met with defiance and rationalization at first, but the apologies I received later indicated that my message did get through to some students.

Open to Attack

Social media is an ever-evolving mode of communication, and it can be a highly effective way for superintendents and other school district staff to engage with a wide-ranging group of constituents. However, as my episode from fall 2016 illustrates, it also can leave a superintendent, and his or her school district, even more vulnerable to criticism and attack. This is why it is important to have policies and procedures in place to ensure privacy rights are considered and the district’s standards for responsible, ethical behavior are upheld.

In Highline, we use our policy and procedure 4309 to outline for schools how to appropriately register a social media site and ensure adequate oversight of our social media pages to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. For example, we do not allow private sites nor do we allow staff to create sites where they are communicating individually with students. We also ensure that a member of our communications team has editing access to any official site. We have had situations where a staff member created a site and then left the district without shutting it down. This can result in a Facebook page, Twitter handle or other site that uses our name but is not active and cannot be removed. By having central-office oversight, we ensure old or inappropriate sites can be removed.

We also use our formal procedures to remind staff and students annually about the mores of appropriate social media conduct and the standard we hold ourselves to as Highline employees. As a former high school journalism teacher, I strongly believe students’ First Amendment rights do not cease at the schoolhouse door. That said, it is important for us as adults to model responsible, ethical behavior through our own social media presence and use and help students understand that just because they can say or post something does not mean they should.

Staying current with communication in the modern age does not mean abdicating responsibility for helping our young people understand that advances in social media will never be an adequate substitute for scheduling a face-to-face meeting to discuss important issues.

The High Road

Superintendents wanting to engage on social media must be willing to make themselves vulnerable to criticism in a very public space and take every opportunity to seize the teachable moments that will inevitably arise. In our current political climate, it is more important than ever that we, as educators and leaders, model respectful, adult communication for our students. We must also create opportunities for students to learn how to debate issues respectfully and thoughtfully.

Leadership means taking the high road and not responding in kind when our personal or professional reputation is attacked, whatever the circumstance. This may well be one of the most valuable lessons we can teach our students today.


Susan Enfield

superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Burien, Wash. Twitter: @SuptEnfield