Saturday January 12, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

ARLINGTON -- The Battenkill Valley Supervisory Union has banned social networking websites from its schools, prohibited teachers and students from contacting each other on them and placed other restrictions on the use of such sites by employees.

But in the wake of the BVSU board's adoption of the new policy Wednesday, the president of the local teachers union has voiced concerns.

Not only do the restrictions raise questions in themselves -- the district is the first in the area to adopt such a policy -- said union President Brian Howe, but he is perplexed that the document states "this policy has been agreed following consultation with the Arlington Teachers' Association."

"It should not have said that. The union has not been formally approached by the board to even comment on it," Howe said Thursday. "I'm not quite sure how that made it into a draft policy."

Howe said he would have expected the union or faculty as a whole to be asked to review any policy that changes how the staff may use sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Maureen Harvey, Policy Committee chairwoman, did not return calls seeking comment Thursday or Friday, while Superintendent Karen Gallese could not be reached as she was out of town Thursday and did not work Friday. BVSU Chairwoman Diane Jennings also could not be reached Friday.

When the school board first discussed the issue in September it held off warning the policy to make sure the principals, attorney and union had a chance to read the document. It is unclear if an attorney was given the policy. The policy approved and posted on the BVSU website Wednesday is identical to the September draft.

Howe said Thursday he was unsure whether the union will raise issue with the content of the policy as it is written. "I can't make an opinion for the association because we really haven't vetted it ourselves," he said.

Howe did question whether the school board discussed how the policy is to be enforced, or the consequences if it is violated, neither of which are clear in the policy.

"Generally if you're going to write a policy ... especially when restricting what people can do, you should have some sense of how you're going to enforce it and what you're going to do if someone is violating the policy," Howe said.

Speaking only for himself, Howe, who said he seldom uses his Facebook account and does not "friend" students, said he has concerns with how restrictive the policy is. "It may not take into account times when some parts of the policy would prevent a teacher from doing a job," he said.

Also troubling to Howe is that the board approved the four-page policy Wednesday even though the agenda made no indication the policy would be discussed or voted on.

"It wasn't on the agenda, and that's a problem in itself. If I had seen that I would have made sure I was there," Howe said.

In addition to the attention-grabbing parts of the policy, there are directives for employees to obey all Internet-related laws, follow confidentiality requirements, and refrain from defamation of character, to name a few.

The policy also looks to separate employees' personal and professional lives. For instance, the policy says employees "should not put any information onto the site that could identify either your profession or the school where you work" as it could damage the reputation of the school.

In September, Gallese said the intent of the policy was to prohibit social networking in the schools, restrict personal or damaging information from being made public, and protect employees from contact that could be inappropriate or misconstrued to be inappropriate.

No other supervisory unions in the area have social networking policies and the Vermont School Board Association, which creates draft policies on various topics for districts to use as templates, does not have one either.

Even though social networking policies are uncommon in this area, the New York City Department of Education approved such a policy last spring that also restricted teachers from "friending" students and prohibited teacher-student communication through social networks other than when the two are relatives or in the case of an emergency.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi