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Janesville School District scrambling to catch up with Facebook, Twitter

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Frank Schultz
March 9, 2013

— Should an employer check up on what their employees say on Twitter or Facebook?

The Janesville School District is like many businesses and local governments that are scrambling to catch up with the sweeping changes in how people communicate.

The immediate problem for the Janes-ville School Board is an employee handbook that will spell out work rules starting July 1.

A school board committee considered proposed social-media rules for the handbook at a meeting last week.

The proposed rule encourages teachers, for example, to set up Facebook or Twitter groups for a class or club or sports team. The teacher would be responsible for keeping the communications professional and age-appropriate.

Committee members seemed to have no problem with such professional use of social media or district monitoring of that activity. But two members questioned a section on personal use.

“[T]he district will not generally regulate or monitor such (personal) conduct,” the proposed rule says. “However, the district may choose to monitor staff personal use of social media if 1) the staff member identifies himself/herself as a district employee or coach, 2) the activities outside of work affect the staff member’s job performance or the performance of other employees or coaches, 3) the social media activities involve district students and 4) the activity is harmful to the district’s interests.”

Robert Smiley, the district’s new chief information officer, said a personal Facebook account should not be used for school purposes. He gave the example of one of his personal Facebook “friends” posting information about brewing beer in the friend’s garage. That would be inappropriate for a student to see, Smiley said.

Board member David DiStefano said it’s common in his business—insurance consulting—that employers monitor professional emails and LinkedIn pages.

It’s for the employee’s protection, and “I would be concerned if people do think this is a problem—you know, what are they hiding?” DiStefano said.

But what if an employee is leader of a Scout troop that includes Janesville students, for example, and he sets up a Facebook page for that purpose? Smiley asked.

Board member Kristin Hesselbacher said it’s not the district’s job to look into what’s happening with a youth group, even if it includes Janesville students. That’s an issue for parents and that organization, she said.

“That’s a big leap to start regulating individuals for what they do from their homes,” said board member Kevin Murray.

Superintendent Karen Schulte responded that checking on an employee’s non-district Facebook page could be relevant if the postings affect something that happens in school. The district has dealt with this issue already, she said without detailing the incident.

Hesselbacher said that kind of oversight intrudes on the parent’s responsibility.

But the employee still represents the school district, DiStefano responded.

If a teacher is accused of inappropriate online behavior, the headline will be that a teacher did it, not that a youth-group leader did it, he said.

Schulte indicated she has been advised the district has a legal interest if there’s a link between an outside communication and the district’s business.

Steve Sperry, the district’s director of administrative and human resources, noted that the district already has standards of professional conduct that could apply.

Those standards call for employees to be positive role models, be honest in communications and “not allow conversations to erode into gossip or negative talk,” for example.

Schulte said problems arise when an employee doesn’t see the connection between personal business and school business.

Hesselbacher asked the administration get legal advice and return to the committee with an update.

“We certainly don’t want to regulate what a person does in their personal life, but when there’s a link (to the schools), how do we advise our staff? How do we coach them? What does that look like, and what does that look like in the handbook?” Smiley said after the meeting.



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