Canada: Using Social Media As A Tool For School Safety

Social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and MySpace have become a prevalent source of entertainment and social interaction for Canadians. Social networking has become especially popular among teenagers, with 7 out of 10 teens between the ages of 12 and 17 regularly using these websites.1 For many students in our schools, social media has become their window to the world.

THE TORONTO POLICE AND SOCIAL MEDIA

The Toronto Police Service has taken advantage of the widespread online presence of Canadian citizens, creating profiles on social networking websites as a new law enforcement strategy. In the position of Social Media Officer, Constable Scott Mills has successfully used his Facebook and Twitter accounts to communicate with people in the online community and gather information on crimes, both before and after they are committed. Through these mechanisms, Constable Mills and the Toronto Police are attempting to close the gap between them and the citizens they serve, generating a relationship of trust by broadening the avenues for communication and access to their services.

The social media presence of the Toronto Police Service has proven to be effective for crime prevention and crime solving. For example, the Toronto Police received a tip via Facebook that an anti-Semitic individual was writing "suspicious posts" on his or her Facebook page. An investigation ensued and it was discovered that this individual was threatening to engage in a "Virginia Tech" style shooting on a university campus. The police were able to prevent what could have been a mass shooting because of information received through their online social media pages.

Further, since creating a Crime Stoppers online profile, the number of tips received has gone from 300 per month to 1000. The police have also prevented numerous teen suicides after discovering, and being referred to, posts on teenagers' online profiles suggesting they were going to harm themselves.

Constable Mills believes that relationships and trust between adults and youth are key to the prevention of violence, including bullying, gang related crime, suicides, threats and online intimidation and terrorism. He advocates the use of social media as a means for creating sustainable relationships, which encourage people to report posts raising concern, before harmful situations develop. He has appealed to all adults, including parents, social workers, school administrators and teachers, asking them to follow in the footsteps of the Toronto Police and participate in these online harm prevention strategies.

THE ONTARIO COLLEGE OF TEACHERS ON SOCIAL MEDIA

The Ontario College of Teachers Professional Advisory, Use of Electronic Communication and Social Media, released on February 23, 2011 ("the Advisory"), cautions that using social media can cause professional boundaries between educators and students to blur. While the Advisory acknowledges ways in which social media can enhance students' educational experiences, it alerts educators to the potential misuse of social media, stating that even the most cautious of users are susceptible to unintended mistakes.

If educators are going to engage in social networking they must be aware of and respect professional boundaries with students and maintain professional integrity. The College has set out clear guidelines for the responsible use of social media by educators.

Rationales for limiting the use of social media by educators include the following:

  • Social media encourages casual dialogue. Even the most innocent actions can be easily misconstrued or manipulated. Rules may relax and informal situations may replace time-respected forms of professional address. As a result, professionals can be vulnerable to unintended misuses of electronic communication.
  • Electronic messages are not anonymous. They can be tracked, misdirected, manipulated and live forever on the Internet. Once information is digitized, the author relinquishes all control.
  • The use of the Internet and social media, despite best intentions, may cause members to forget their professional responsibilities and the unique position of trust and authority given to them by society. The dynamic between a member and a student is forever changed when the two become "friends" in an online environment.
  • Online identities and actions are visible to the public and can result in serious repercussions or embarrassment.

Educators who misuse social media expose themselves to disciplinary action, as well as potential legal liability in criminal and civil proceedings.

To ensure educators do not offend professional boundaries when they engage in social networking, the Ontario College of Teachers has provided the following guidelines:

  • Members should never share information with students in any environment that they would not willingly and appropriately share in a school or school-related setting or in the community.
  • As a digital citizen, a member should model the behaviour he or she would expect to see online from students.
  • Professional persona must be maintained by communicating with students electronically at appropriate times of the day and through established education platforms.
  • Members should maintain a formal, courteous and professional tone in all communications with students.
  • Avoid exchanging private texts, phone numbers, personal e-mail addresses or photos of a personal nature with students.
  • Decline student-initiated "friend" requests and do not issue "friend" requests to students.
  • Notify parents/guardians before using social networks for classroom activities.
  • Members should operate in all circumstances online as a professional – as they would in the community. They should assume that information they post can be accessed or altered.
  • Content posted to members' social media accounts should be monitored regularly and privacy settings should be appropriately set. Students should not be allowed to view or post content on members' account pages.

The Advisory also makes clear that educators are expected to act professionally in all online communications. Specifically, they must consider whether a post will reflect poorly on them, their school or the teaching profession more generally. They are also urged to use their true identity at all times. They should avoid online criticism, impulsive or heated comments. Furthermore, educators should respect their employer's policies and practice good judgment.

The College has set out questions educators should ask themselves before using social media at any given time:

  • Am I using social media to enhance student learning, or to satisfy a personal need?
  • Am I sharing this information with a student for personal or professional reasons?
  • Is this posting something I would be comfortable with students, parents, my supervisor, my family or the media seeing?
  • Would peers view my posting as reasonable and professional?
  • Would I communicate like this in my community?
  • Is my posting susceptible to misrepresentation or manipulation?
  • How does my online presence reflect on my professionalism and the teaching profession?

In providing such extensive, comprehensive guidelines for using social media, the Advisory is seemingly at odds with Constable Mills' initiatives for promoting safety using educators' online profiles. However, there may be ways for educators to use social media as a means to prevent harm and promote safety in schools while at the same time respecting the Advisory, ensuring professional and responsible use of social networks.

A MIDDLE GROUND

With the rise of social networking, cyberbullying has become a serious problem among students. In the Report of the Nova Scotia Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying2, it is stated that 49.5% of Toronto junior high and high school students surveyed have been victims of online bullying. The Task Force also found that many instances of online bullying go unreported because young people wish to avoid having their technology privileges restricted; they do not want to admit that they are being bullied; they believe that no adult can stop the bullying; and they feel that involvement of any adult will exacerbate the situation.

Canadian school boards are committed to building and sustaining a positive school climate for all students. A positive school climate exists when all members of the school community feel comfortable, safe and accepted. The use of social media by educators can be a way to engage with and monitor students in order to ensure community safety.

Recognizing the concerns raised by the Ontario College of Teachers about professional boundaries, one recommendation for using social media as a safety tool is to select a group of educators, who would be specially trained in the technology, legal issues, relationships, ethics and professional boundaries of using social media, to engage with students on a regular basis online. These School Online Support Persons could include principals, vice-principals, social workers, guidance councillors, child and youth workers and hall monitors. These individuals would develop an appropriate contact with students online and represent a listening post for students who may be at risk for bullying or involvement in crime. These Support Persons would at all times follow an appropriate process and protocol in their online contact with students.

As an alternative to individual educators opening personal accounts, schools could create general online profiles on predominant social networking websites, specifically as an outlet for students to post or privately message its monitors with their concerns. The same individuals listed in the recommendation above could form a committee responsible for monitoring the school's webpage and reporting suspicious posts to the school or school administrators on an as-needed basis. The committee would once again be specially trained on using social media, recognizing the boundaries created by the Ontario College of Teachers.

Lastly, it may be helpful for schools to create a website, blog or text hotline dedicated to safety concerns that students, parents, and educators can e-mail or text message anonymously when they feel a situation needs to be addressed to prevent harm.

Social media is the oxygen that many Canadian students breathe. Early and ongoing contact with students using social media tools, within the boundaries set out in the Ontario College of Teachers Professional Advisory, will help foster trusting relationships and prevent unsafe and inappropriate behaviour in our school communities.

Footnotes

1 Dr. John M. Grohol, Psych Central (2010) (http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/02/06/facebook-continues-to-dominate-among-youth/).

2 Respectful and Responsible Relationships: There's No App for That by A. Wayne Mackay (Province of Nova Scotia, February 29, 2012) at p. 11.

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