Teacher-Student Contact on Social Media
When is it appropriate?
Written by Kayleigh K. Smith
This article is useful for attorneys who represent teachers as well as parents with kids in the school system. Social media, text messaging, and email can be convenient and even mandatory tools for teachers1 to communicate with their students, particularly as classes continue to stay online during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the landscape is fraught with ethical pitfalls. During the 2018-2019 fiscal year, the Texas Education Agency, or TEA, investigated 442 inappropriate relationships between educators and students.2 The increase in reports of inappropriate relationships with students in the past 10 years seems to be correlated with the increased popularity of email, text messaging, and social media.3 Failure to take the proper precautions can lead an educator into trouble with his or her school district, TEA, and even law enforcement.
The Texas Educators Code of Ethics Standard 3.94 states, “The educator shall refrain from inappropriate communication with a student or minor, including, but not limited to, electronic communication such as cell phone, text messaging, email, instant messaging, blogging, or other social network communication. Factors that may be considered in assessing whether the communication is inappropriate include, but are not limited to:
a. the nature, purpose, timing, and amount of the communication;
b. the subject matter of the communication;
c. whether the communication was made openly, or the educator attempted to conceal the communication;
d. whether the communication could be reasonably interpreted as soliciting sexual contact or a romantic relationship;
e. whether the communication was sexually explicit; and
f. whether the communication involved discussion(s) of the physical or sexual attractiveness or the sexual history, activities, preferences, or fantasies of either the educator or the student.”
Additionally, many school districts’ codes of conduct for educators prohibit contact with students via text message or social media. Texas Penal Code § 33.021 defines online solicitation of a minor as intentionally contacting a minor “over the internet, by electronic mail or text message or other electronic message service or system, or through a commercial online service” and “communicat[ing] in a sexually explicit manner” or “distribut[ing] sexually explicit material to a minor” or by “knowingly solicit[ing] a minor to meet another person, including the actor, with the intent that the minor will engage in sexual contact, sexual intercourse, or deviate sexual intercourse with the actor or another person.”
Given the professional and potential criminal liability associated with messaging students, best practices dictate that educators do not contact their students via text message, cellphone, email, instant messaging, blogging, or other social network communications. Educators should make all of their social media private and not “friend” or add any of their current students to their social media.
If an educator does reach out to a student through cellphone or online platform, they should be mindful of the following factors:
(i) the nature, purpose, timing, and amount of communication—Educators should refrain from contacting students late at night or early in the morning and be mindful that repeated messages will look suspicious to the state board of educators or a board of trustees. Never use language that could be construed as inappropriate or unprofessional.
(ii) the subject matter of the communication—If the subject matter is not something the educator would feel comfortable discussing in a classroom and in front of his or her supervisors, he or she should not be reaching out to individual students to discuss the matter by text or online platform.
(iii) whether the communication was made openly or the educator attempted to conceal the conversation—This makes apps like Snapchat, where the message can “disappear” after being read by the recipient ripe for complaints because they are inherently conspicuous due to the concealed nature of the communications. Educators should never correspond with students on apps like Snapchat.
(iv) whether the communication could be reasonably interpreted as soliciting a sexual or romantic relationship—Educators inherently lose the context of the message without social cues like tone of voice and mannerism when the state board of educators or board of trustees interprets a text message; thus, something as innocuous as an emoji or a “like” on a certain picture has been reasonably interpreted as soliciting a sexual or romantic relationship.
Finally, attorneys representing educators should advise that even if a communication itself does not meet the standard of inappropriate, special attention provided to any one student “outside of a classroom” could be evidence of “grooming” a student for abuse. For these reasons, educators should keep all of their social media private and refrain from contacting students through any means other than those that are sanctioned by their school district.TBJ
Kayleigh K. Smith is an associate attorney of Bertolino in Austin with extensive experience advocating for clients in a variety of matters. Her featured areas of representation include medical license defense, professional license defense, and vocational license defense. Prior to working at Bertolino, Smith represented clients from all 50 states in complex pharmaceutical and medical device litigation. She is licensed to practice in Texas and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.