There are more than 800 million active users on Facebook, more than half of whom log in daily. Chances are, many or even most of the hundreds of Reed-Custer High School students are among them. And statistically, so are their teachers.
So what is a school district to do when technology advances faster than school policy? That's the question facing the members of the Reed-Custer School Board, as they continue with discussions on how to manage relationships between staff and students when those relationships reach far past school boundaries and into cyberspace.
Board members got into the nitty-gritty of the discussion for the second time on Dec. 21. The board first discussed the possibility of an electronic communications policy in September, when members said they'd like to visit the issue and hammer out some rules or policy addendums before it becomes an issue, and not after.
Last week, Superintendent Dr. John Butts told board members that it's a topic receiving attention from school districts all around Illinois.
"I would say that from an educational point of view, this is the number one topic of discussion in the state, certainly in the northern part of the state," Dr. Butts said. "It seems like districts have been to several workshops. I've talked to individual districts, called the people, talked with the attorney... The issues are tough."
Butts said that while he was not prepared to offer an actual policy proposal just yet, when that time comes, it should focus on high standards and appropriate contact. Butts presented the board members with a list of ideas to be considered as part of a district policy, including:
Social media cannot interfere with the educational policy.
Personal, individually owned technology should not be used to share school information.
No "Facebooking" during work hours.
An acceptable use policy should be reviewed annually.
All appropriate uses should have prior approval.
Dr. Butts said that there may very well be educational value to social media such as Facebook, Twitter and other sites, the district has to find it and be able to encourage the use of it appropriately.
"We have to count on the teachers and their professionalism and their positive student relationships to say, how can this be used educationally," Butts said. "I would discourage friending from personal accounts. It's still going to boil down to professionalism... but the educational purpose, where they would be friending, must continue to be educational."
School board members noted that finding a balance for how Facebook and other social media is used in relation to the schools is difficult. Board member Stacey Speed sees an issue with students being able to peer into the private lives of teachers, and accountability on the district if information that is inappropriate gets passed along in the process.
"I wouldn't ever want to take away an avenue for the teachers to talk to the students," Speed said. "I don't want Facebook accounts to be inappropriate... Say we had high school students who are 18 years of age, and [teachers] who are 23. Twenty three, and 18, in my opinion, it would be inappropriate.
"A 23-year-old, I wouldn't want him to have a Facebook account with his college days on Facebook, and he's got 30 senior friends tied to that, showing what he's done in college, drinking and those kinds of things. By standard, if that was on the 18-year-old student's account, we would hold them accountable for that."
Speed said he hoped to see a policy in place that provides a broad statement regarding professionalism and expectations. Other board members agreed.
"We're trying to figure out where the line is, so we're being proactive instead of reactive," member Kris Van Duyne said.
Board members added that a broad policy could be more appropriate, as opposed to one that pinpoints requirements that need to be reviewed year after year.
High school principal Tim Ricketts added that while Facebook can affect student relationships with one another, minor problems that arise from it are generally not addressed by the school.
"We don't go out looking for stuff," Ricketts said. "The only time that we have ever had Facebook as even part of the equation is if we had students come to us with stuff that they are concerned about. The only time we've ever had that as an issue is if it was causing [a problem] during a school day.
"If it's something that kids are battling on the weekends about, as long as it doesn't come into the school or cause a threat within the school or a student or a physical fight, then we don't address that."
Ricketts added that he thinks there is a way to create a policy that teachers will be happy to follow.
"You discourage it, you make sure that the younger teachers know the risks that are out there, and the fact that they are coming from college student into a profession. Just educating them on it," Ricketts added. "As long as the expectations are out there, I think even our young teachers who are coming right out of college... will comply with what the standard is."
In addition to a policy for teachers, the board will also consider how students utilize the site. While Facebook rules ask that children be 13 or older in order to have an account, some teachers say that some Reed-Custer students as young as second grade have their own Facebook accounts. Those teachers said the board should encourage parents to become more educated on Facebook, and how their children are interacting with others on the site.
According to Facebook's own statistics, the average Facebook user has 130 "friends," and is connected to more than 80 community pages, groups and events. On average, more than 250 million photos are uploaded each day to the site. More than 350 million active users currently access Facebook through their mobile devices, meaning that those students and teachers with smart phones have even easier access to the site.
Figuring out how to incorporate - or flat out ban - communication between staff and students over social network sites is a struggle nationwide. Some school districts in Florida, Ohio and North Carolina have very restrictive policies, some which state that teachers will be subject to disciplinary action if they are Facebook friends with students or their parents. Meanwhile, hundreds of other school districts nationwide take a more lenient approach, simply encouraging teachers to maintain appropriate relationships with their students and even setting up district Facebook pages where they can post information for the schools within their district, as well as school board agendas and emergency information.
So far, the members of the Reed-Custer School Board seem open to exploring the idea of how Facebook can be used. The members said they simply have to research and find a way to make sure they can create a clear line for appropriate contact.
"Used appropriately it's an after hours reach-out, I don't want that to be taken away," Speed said. "I just want us to say, hey, if you're going to have it, it has to be maintained in a professional manner. Lead by example. That's why we're here."