Facebook policy OK’d by Mehlville school board with unanimous vote

Mehlville policy puts in writing protocol being used by district

By Kari Williams

A new state-mandated policy approved last week by the Mehlville Board of Education places limits on electronic communication between staff and students.

The policy, known as the Facebook policy, was approved Feb. 9 with a 7-0 vote.

Adopting such an electronic communication policy originally was required by Senate Bill 54, adopted last year by the Legislature. But after the Missouri State Teachers Association filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of parts of the law, a Cole County judge issued a preliminary injunction in August blocking the measure from going into effect.

The Legislature last fall approved a revised law, SB 1, which was signed Oct. 21 by Gov. Jay Nixon. Under the revised law, each school district must adopt its own electronic communication policy by March 1.

Board Vice President Larry Felton asked how the policy changes the way the district has been operating.

“Does this just set up more of a guidance for incidents that are reported?” he asked.

Vicki VanLaere, assistant superintendent for human resources, said the policy puts in writing protocol the district has been following.

“Things that we have been doing already, they’re at least put down on paper so in the event we have some unfortunate event occur, we have something we can go to, to deal with it,” VanLaere said.

Board member Ron Fedorchak asked if extracurricular activities are included in prohibited electronic communication, citing an example of a coach texting students to coordinate where to meet the team.

Knost said that has not been spelled out in the policy, but it is discouraged.

“It may be easy, but you can lay it out in your head that it’s just, once you open that conversation up, what do you do with the response?” Knost said. “It puts professionals in an awkward situation.”

One part of the policy states “staff members may only communicate with student electronically for educational purposes between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., except in situations approved by an administrator.”

However, Knost said the “paramount piece” in any situation, more than the time of the conversation, is content. An example of a teacher replying to an email on his or own time after 10 p.m. so he or she does not have to in the morning is “not really an ongoing back and forth conversation,” according to Knost.

“If it’s absolutely school related, there’s not going to be nearly the concern as there would be as if (it was not school related),” he said.

The superintendent also said the goal of setting a timeframe is for conversation to be school related.

“It’s just to try to leave some parameters in place to kind of send the message that this needs to stay on a professional level related to school,” Knost said.

As far as consequences, Knost said the district will treat each occurrence based on the factors surrounding it.

“There’s nothing that says, ‘If this, then that,'” he said, “but … if we’re given information that an educator … is communicating with a kid via text at midnight on a Saturday night, we’re going to treat that the same as we would if information is brought to us about a phone conversation or meeting in person or something. So we’ll have to consider all the facts, but it’s definitely, it’s something that we would address.”

However, Knost said district officials still have a great deal to learn about interpreting the policy.

“Obviously, we had to have (the policy). We went through the legal piece on it, and we’ve got to make sure that we iron out exactly how we’re applying it in those situations and sometimes that happens by the uniqueness of a situation,” he said. “That’s why you always have policy in place because situations are unique. Situations happen and the first thing we do is apply it to policy, and see kind of where it sits