No personal cellphones: Arizona board sets new guidelines for how teachers talk to students

·5 min read

The State Board of Education is recommending that all schools in Arizona adopt new guidance for educators to communicate electronically with students.

The guidance, approved by the board on June 9 is simple: Teachers should use school-approved technology and refrain from using their personal devices when connecting with students online. And they should do so only during school hours or scheduled extracurricular hours.

A bill signed by Gov. Doug Ducey last year required the state board to issue the guidelines and although it calls for the agency to encourage all schools to adopt them, it doesn't mandate schools to do so.

Many school districts and charter schools already have adopted social media and online communication policies in their employee handbooks. The Arizona School Board Association, which serves more than 240 governing boards in the state, has a policy model available on its website that districts can adopt to address school staff's electronic communications.

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The State Board of Education guidelines come after a task force in 2019 recommended the board issue best practices for social media and cellphone use between teachers and students.

Inappropriate communication between teachers and students via social media and texts came to light after high-profile cases, such as Goodyear teacher Brittany Zamora, convicted of molesting a student, gained attention.

A 2019 analysis done by The Arizona Republic and KJZZ-FM, Phoenix's public radio station, into more than 180 allegations of teacher sexual misconduct over the previous four years showed inappropriate behavior often takes place electronically.

The report noted some teachers sent sexually explicit texts while others were caught viewing pornography on district-issued computers. In Zamora's case, she often communicated via Instagram with the student.

A report released by the state board in January showed between 2012 and 2021, the agency took 1,107 enforcement actions against teachers accused of immoral or unprofessional conduct. In 2012, the board took 55 actions against educators, a fraction of the 146 figure reported in 2021.

The report also noted the largest share of enforcement actions, or 38% of them, resulted from alleged sexual misconduct.

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The new guidelines

The guidelines are intended to ensure safety. According to the state board, educators should:

  • Only use school-controlled and approved technologies when communicating with students or parents while refraining from using personal devices.

  • Include a parent, another educator, or supervisor in any communication with students that could be construed as inappropriate. For example, if devices are not provided by the employer and the educator is taking chaperones and students on a field trip and is required to stay in contact with the students throughout the trip, the educator should create a large group messaging thread with other adults in the conversation rather than messaging students directly.

  • Only communicate with students regarding academic or extracurricular activities and should refrain from communication outside of academic and extracurricular scheduled hours.

  • Follow school policies and state law by appropriately reporting communication received from a student of a serious nature, such as abuse, suicide, threats of self-harm, and threats to other students or the school.

The guidelines also say school professionals are responsible for the content of their online activity on any platform. They emphasize educators must be aware of their position and ensure their online content is consistent with how they wish to present themselves to colleagues, parents, students, community members, and the state board.

School officials are able to report violations of the new guidelines to the state board, which can discipline educators for engaging in immoral or unprofessional conduct.

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Social media, electronic communications keep evolving

Marisol Garcia, a mother and the president-elect of the Arizona Education Association, told The Republic in 2019 that her rule for her son's teachers was simple. They shouldn't talk to him after 4:30 p.m. She cautioned teachers then against talking to students online.

Now, Garcia said her 16-year-old has one channel of direct online communication with his teachers: through Microsoft Teams, which is controlled by his school.

One thing it hasn't changed for Garcia is that parents need to be aware of their children's use of social media. She pointed out the challenges parents face with the rapidly evolving platforms on which teachers and students can strike up a dialogue.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped change that scenario even more rapidly as teachers had to adapt to online teaching and learn a new set of skills in the past two years.

Garcia also said that schools are different across the state and often districts serve students from different age groups, which can mean that communication needs also can be different.

Schools should present, discuss and negotiate policies related to social media and electronic communication with educators at the beginning of every school year so that the onus is on everybody, including parents, students, and school employees, she said.

"At a local level, it might be good to negotiate and be part of a really good, healthy social media policy just so everyone's on the same page," Garcia said.

Reach the reporter at rclo@arizonarepublic.com or at 480-267-4703. Follow her on Twitter @renataclo.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona board sets guidelines for teacher-student communication