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19: Social media and school sex scandals

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19: Social media and school sex scandals
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You may have seen the news that a 32-year-old teacher in Arkansas has been arrested following allegations that she had sex with a 13-year-old pupil. The fact that the relationship appears to have started via social media will be a cause of concern for schools who will be understandably anxious about the safeguarding risks which new communication methods present.

This story comes in the wake of scandals closer to home, including the story of 58-year-old teaching assistant Elaine McKay who admitted to sending sexually explicit images of herself to a 15-year-old schoolboy over the course of a year, and performing ‘graphic sexual acts’ on herself while the boy watched on Skype. Although sexual relationships between teachers and pupils are not a new danger, new methods of communication increase the opportunities for inappropriate behaviour to take place, and the likelihood that such behaviour may take place undetected.

So, what can schools do to avoid these kind of situations arising? Some schools may choose to apply an outright ban on teachers interacting with pupils on social media. However, given the opportunities for innovative teaching which social media presents this approach may be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Social media is now one of the primary ways in which young people communicate and effective teaching depends on effective communication. Teachers who have pioneered the use of mediums such as Facebook and Twitter in their teaching have reported increased engagement and faster response times from students than through more traditional methods such as emails and virtual learning environments (VLEs).

Rather than rejecting modern communication methods outright, schools should take a rigorous approach to identifying and managing risks. For example, schools should ensure that they have robust policies governing the use of social media by staff and students, and clear boundaries should be set as to how teachers are expected to interact with their pupils both in and out of the classroom. Schools may require teachers to use institutional or professional social media accounts when carrying out teaching activities, which can be easily monitored by the institution. Social media should also be included as part of staff training on safeguarding and pupils’ lessons on e-safety.

Ultimately, teachers embarking on inappropriate relationships with pupils is primarily a conduct matter rather than a social media issue. However, schools should be aware of the heightened possibility of such conduct in the social media age and take steps to minimise the opportunities for it to take place.  Staff should be encouraged to promptly report any inappropriate behaviour.  Schools should make provision within their disciplinary procedure for suspected inappropriate behaviour to be investigated and appropriate sanctions imposed.  

18 September 2014

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