New technologies

January 14, 2015
Marvin Hackman

Invaluable but double-edged tools

Increasingly, teachers are experiencing employment and professional-conduct difficulties related to digital technology. Teachers are also being adversely affected by student or parent misuse of technology. Each week, the Association’s Member Services staff work with at least half a dozen teachers experiencing problems in this area.

Inappropriate use of employers’ technology

Arbitration decisions have repeatedly affirmed employers’ rights to monitor the technology they provide to employees and to discipline staff for inappropriate use of technology. This applies to technology provided for work, including stationary computers, laptops, cellphones and Internet.

Teachers need to be aware of the sophistication of monitoring programs used by employers. These programs track keywords or the number of images downloaded or stored, can retrieve all emails sent or received and Internet sites visited, and provide a breakdown of how often each site was visited, the length of each visit, the number of downloads and a sampling of the content.

The past can haunt you

A misconception that must be overcome is the notion that emails, online histories or content created on a hard drive can be erased. One case that came before the ATA’s Professional Conduct Committee involved a teacher who was having an inappropriate relationship with a student; most of the information from the teacher’s hard drive was retrieved even though the hard drive had been broken and overwritten several times. The ATA has represented several techies who erroneously believed that information had been removed from their hard drive. Simply put, everything you do online leaves a trace.

Although most people are adept at using technology, they are often less adept at preventing others from accessing embarrassing or personal information. One situation requiring Member Services representation involved a teacher who had videotaped her husband in their bedroom. When the couple were unable to burn a DVD of the video onto a personal laptop, they transferred the content onto the woman’s school laptop, burned a DVD and then deleted the content. Or so they thought. At school, the woman docked her school laptop onto the district network. Unbeknownst to her, the system didn’t recognize the file as having been deleted. Instead, it displayed the content on her screen, where it was viewed by others. This is not an isolated incident — other teachers have had similar experiences.

Teachers need to use prudence with all forms of technology provided to them by the employer. A case in point involved two school administrators who were having an affair and whose employment was threatened after the school district discovered the relationship through the records of the administrators’ district-supplied cellphones. In other cases, Internet viewing of inappropriate sites on district-supplied cellphones has resulted in disciplinary action.

Think before you write or surf

Teachers, often out of frustration, have gone online to voice their discontent or disagreement with school district policies or practices. Doing this is problematic because employees have a “duty of fidelity” to the employer that requires them to raise concerns about district protocols through proper channels, which does not include public commentary. Disciplinary action against teachers as a result of such activity has occurred on numerous occasions.

Teachers must also learn to refrain from responding too quickly to upsetting emails. Many teachers have gotten into difficulty by responding to district decisions, such as the decision to restrict out-of-province PD activities or cut school budgets. A classic example is the unintentional use of “reply to all.” In one such case, a frustrated principal, upset with a central office decision, replied to an email by dressing down the school superintendent in strong terms and pejorative language without realizing that he had pressed “reply to all,” and sent his email to more than 40 other administrators.

Theft of time

As for surfing the web, the best approach is to consider whether you would be discomfited by senior central office staff viewing the content of a particular website over your shoulder. If you would, then avoid such sites when using the district’s hardware or Internet access.

As part of regular monitoring, school districts can monitor the amount of time teachers spend online and can get breakdowns of the type of activity they engage in. Employers are increasingly looking at issues related to the theft of time and whether teachers are online when they are supposed to be teaching or fulfilling administrative duties. Spending too much time emailing, blogging, posting on social networking sites or surfing the web can have serious employment ramifications. For example, a teacher was disciplined by her school district when it was established that she was spending more than two hours a day online during the time when she was supposed to be teaching. And a school administrator was disciplined for trading stock several hours a day during the time designated for administrative duties.

Online learning

Teachers also need to be careful in their online interactions with students for instructional purposes. Although online interactions often enhance the instructional experience, teachers must maintain teacher-student boundaries. Difficulties often arise when students engage in online conversations that they would not participate in during class and raise topics not discussed in the classroom.

Many discuss personal matters and share or request personal information; many use less formal language, or post inappropriate links. The teacher’s role is to ensure that regular teacher-student boundaries are maintained. Both teachers and students need to be cautious about what they communicate online. A slip of the tongue in the classroom is generally forgotten, because it can’t be shared widely, whereas a slip of the finger online can be seen by thousands of people and can be impossible to retract.

Inappropriate use of personal technology

Teachers must be aware of possible employment ramifications related to personal use of their own technology and remember that misconduct online is no different from misconduct in public when it harms the school district’s reputation or the teacher’s standing within the school community.

Free speech is not absolute. It enters the employment realm when a teacher’s posting

  • violates confidentiality requirements under law and statute;
  • brings into question the teacher’s ability to be an appropriate role model;
  • violates a teacher’s professional obligations to students or colleagues; and/or
  • breaches one’s duty of fidelity to the employer.

Examples of breaching confidentiality obligations related to students include unauthorized postings on social networking sites of photos of the classroom (including photos of students and student work) or blogs that include discussions about a student’s medical condition. The first example breaches privacy legislation; the second breaches a teacher’s obligation to keep student information confidential under the School Act and the Teaching Profession Act. Such postings are inappropriate even if the student is not named, because students own their own images, and an open discussion about a student’s medical condition makes the student identifiable and is a significant breach of personal privacy protected under FOIP (Freedom of Information and Personal Privacy).

Social networking is a minefield — enter at your own risk

Contrary to popular belief, postings on a social networking site like Facebook are not restricted to those listed as friends. People familiar with the technology or those who buy corporate accounts can gain access to a person’s page. The same holds true for security settings on sites where photos are stored. Party photos, intended for sharing with friends only, can come back to haunt people. Photos showing a teacher in a state of intoxication, using drugs or wearing skimpy or no clothing can have employment ramifications, especially if students can see them.

A worst-case scenario relating to online photos occurred a few years ago when a student’s parent accessed an elementary teacher’s photo area on Facebook. The teacher had stored an album of private photos intended to be seen by the teacher and her spouse only. The photos were sent to others, which made employment impossible in the small school jurisdiction where the teacher taught, even though she had engaged in nonculpable behaviour.

Personal blogs, websites and social networking pages often contain candid comments that the writer assumes will be read by an audience of friends only. This is not always true. Therefore, teachers should refrain from making comments critical of colleagues, because doing so can leave the teacher open to charges of unprofessional conduct and/or have employment ramifications.

One such example involved a teacher who posted comments on her Facebook page from a discussion that had taken place at a staff meeting about the need for staff to do something about inappropriate student attire. On her site, the teacher wrote that if student attire was going to be monitored, then the “creepy” physical education teacher’s attire should be as well. Persons listed as her friends on the site included other teachers on staff and community members whose children attended the school. Such commentary clearly breached the Code of Professional Conduct and undermined the physical education teacher’s position in the school community.

What not to put on your resume

Online postings remain online forever. Comments posted while a person attended high school or university can be observed years later. Corporate employers and, increasingly, education sector employers are using search engines to see what applicants have posted in the past. Employers are under no obligation to reveal why they decided not to hire a person. Your previous online history could prevent you from being considered for future employment. You could also face embarrassment and diminished credibility among your colleagues and your students if past actions and commentaries surface during a simple online search.

Catholic employers’ searches of prospective employees have found postings on personal sites referring to people engaged in common-law relationships or alternative lifestyles that are contrary to church doctrine. The fortunate ones were advised and told to remedy the situation, but we can be sure that some applicants were not so lucky. For this reason, the ATA’s Member Services advises teachers to do a search of their own name on a regular basis to see what material related to them exists on the Internet and to be proactive in addressing potential problems.

Will the real John Doe please stand up

An Internet name search often turns up a number of people with the same name, some of whom might be doing or saying things that could cause embarrassment or employment difficulty for the other so-named people. In addition to the problem of multiple names is the simple fact that it is easy to set up false websites to discredit others. Several Alberta teachers have found fake social networking profiles in their names set up by students impersonating them and making embarrassing comments about them, including comments of a sexual nature. It’s imperative that teachers not list students as friends on personal sites, because doing so provides students with access to material not intended for their perusal, and also creates a perception of familiarity in students’ minds that goes further than intended by the term “friend” in the context of social networking.

Guard your password with your life

Teachers need to be careful about providing students with passwords or access to their personal sites. Students armed with a teacher’s password have accessed inappropriate sites and posted inappropriate material on a teacher’s account after the teacher left a logged-in computer unattended. This caution applies to other technologies as well. A teacher working with students to develop a media production lent his cellphone, which was equipped with a camera, to students. Unfortunately, he forgot that his spouse had taken photos of him naked as a practical joke. The joke wasn’t so funny when the students discovered the photos.

Perils of cyberbullying and cyber libel

Students’ and parents’ postings directed at other students or teachers are generally outside of teachers’ control. Bullying escalates outside of school hours because harmful comments are often posted at that time. When students make bullying remarks about others or inflammatory comments, the School Act can provide quick remedy to this problem.

Section 24(1) (b) of the act allows school administrators to suspend students when, in the opinion of the principal, “the student’s actions are injurious to the physical or mental wellbeing of others in the school.” Other students and school staff fit the definition of “others in the school.”

It is more difficult to address comments posted by parents. First, one must differentiate between “qualified privilege” or “fair comment” and comments that are defaming where harm can be established. Opinions about a teacher’s instructional approach or effectiveness likely fall under “qualified privilege” if the parent is speaking to a person with a duty to receive such information (for example, a principal or superintendent) and “fair comment” if the parent is speaking to others in general. This is why sites like RateMyTeacher.com have not faced libel suits.

That being said, when comments are inflammatory and harm to the teacher is evident, court action is a possibility. The hallmark case, given the size of judgment, is Newman v Halstead, a 2006 decision in British Columbia. In this case, the parents continued creating webpages entitled Least Wanted Educators and Bully Educators, and posting the names and photos of the teachers after they were told to cease and desist. An award of $676,000 was ordered for the defamation of nine teachers, a former school trustee and a parent.

In cases of significant defamation, the ATA has filed suit against parents. Another 2006 case, Angle v LaPierre, resulted in a judgment in excess of $50,000 in damages against four parents and School Works Inc! for making wrongful and defaming comment.

Although access to the courts is an option, it is generally restricted to worst-case scenarios, because civil suits take a long time to resolve and can cause a lot of hassle to the person suing. It is not uncommon to wait three years for a matter to be heard. In the interim, the matter remains alive, even though the offending behaviour might well have abated. Sometimes, though, the person being sued profits by getting a bigger soapbox and broader audience. The media will generally report on the assertions and allegations made by the parent being sued without providing the same level of reporting after the teacher was found to have been defamed. Finally, although it’s easy to establish that comments can be hurtful and inaccurate, it must also be established that the person defamed has experienced harm to his or her reputation or standing. The latter is more difficult to do.

That being said, where harm is clear and the offending parties are unwilling to change, pursuit through civil court is possible. Prior to taking any legal action, though, one must make it clear to the offending party that the comments are unwelcome, and the statements unacceptable or inappropriate, and clearly request that the offending posting be removed and the activity stopped.

Teachers are advised to make copies of all offending messages or postings, keep a record of when they were posted and keep the URL (Web address) of the posting. Most important, teachers need to contact a Member Services staff officer as soon as they have a concern to ensure that the postings are removed and that all necessary steps have been taken should legal action become necessary.

Tread carefully

Digital technology has changed the working landscape for teaching, just as it has for other occupations. The new technologies have become invaluable tools for enhancing the educational experience, but they also have a darker side; they are indeed a double-edged sword. Teachers need to be careful not to commit hara-kiri on the wrong edge.

Marvin Hackman is an executive staff officer in the Member Services program area of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2010 issue of the ATA Magazine.