UF study: More than half of Florida school districts lack social media policies for teachers

November 3, 2015
Charles Boisseau

A majority of Florida’s school districts have no policy on the use of social media by teachers and other employees, increasing the potential for misuse and inappropriate teacher-student relationships online, according to an analysis conducted by a University of Florida educational leadership scholar.

Doctoral candidate Jesse Gates found that only 32 of the state’s 68 school districts have a dedicated social media policy, and none is comprehensive enough to adequately address all the key elements of Florida’s case law concerning public school employees’ use of social media. Gates’ research covered the primary school districts in all of Florida’s 67 counties, plus Florida Virtual School, the state’s Internet-based public K-12 school.

The findings come at a time of growing awareness of social media “misdeeds” by teachers, Gates writes in his dissertation research report, as evidenced by a rising trend of teacher firings and suspensions due to inappropriate communications on Facebook and other social media outlets.

Teachers have been punished for posting inappropriate photos, engaging in unprofessional online interactions with students and participating in inflammatory blogs about supervisors and fellow teachers. In 2013, a South Florida high school teacher was arrested on charges of using Facebook to solicit sex from students ages 15 to 17.

Yet school districts have been slow to establish guidelines on what teachers can and cannot do on social networking sites.

While a social media policy isn’t an ironclad way to stop misdeeds, it provides employees protection and a more focused idea of what behavior is allowed on social media, Gates said.

“Realistically, in extreme cases, it's doubtful that a clear and concise social networking policy would have made a difference,” Gates said. “Many of the issues we read about really aren't violations of a social media policy, per se; they are usually violations of the code of ethics. Social networking just makes it easier for a teacher to prey on students.”

Gates makes several recommendations to improve district policies, including clarifying key terminology, explaining freedom of speech limitations for public employees, specifying enforcement of the policy and relating the policy to the teacher code of conduct.

Additionally, his work includes a sample social media policy based on current state statutes that could serve as a template for school districts’ development or improvement of their policies, said UF educational administration & policy Professor Craig Wood, Gates’ dissertation chair.

“In terms of public policy analysis and improving practices at the school board level, it’s a valid piece of work,” Wood said.

Gates said courts generally have given public schools the responsibility to decide how to balance public employees’ right to freedom of speech with their responsibilities as public servants.

“This is a huge responsibility,” Gates said. “Social networking has made this conflict more prevalent.”

Despite the challenges, Gates notes that studies have indicated that Facebook and other social media outlets can increase student engagement and improve cross-cultural collaboration and community building.

“When it comes to social networking and texting policies, I really do hate to see a complete ban on their use because studies have shown they can be beneficial to learning and engagement,” Gates said.

Gates, an assistant principal at an elementary school in St. Johns County, successfully defended his 145-page dissertation titled, “A Public Policy Analysis of Social Networking in Florida Public Schools." He will graduate in December with a doctorate in leadership in educational administration.

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