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CMS Begins Thorny Task Of Regulating Social Media Use By Schools And Employees

Providence Instagram main.jpeg
A new CMS policy would regulate official social media accounts, such as the Providence High Instagram page.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is tackling the task of regulating social media use by schools and employees, and it's raising difficult questions about the balance between free speech and professional standards.

Writing a policy means spelling out who can say what on social media for a district with more than 19,000 employees — and doing it in a polarized climate where people go into digital battle over memes, opinions and news sources. The CMS legal and policy staff have been researching and drafting a social media policy for some time now. This week, they finally had something ready to show the school board’s policy committee.

"This is the 13th version of this policy," Policy Administrator Charles Jeter told the committee Tuesday.

Bear in mind that CMS has 177 schools, and many of them have separate accounts for clubs, teams and departments.

"We’re talking about literally hundreds of sites, if not thousands," Jeter said. "I mean, just Twitter accounts and Facebook, not even getting into Snapchat and Instagram and all the other social media sites that this policy would be applicable to."

A six-page draft policy says only CMS employees would be allowed to run CMS social media accounts — not parents or other volunteers — and only with permission from the superintendent or his designees. The district’s general counsel said that would not apply to booster clubs and PTAs, which are separate entities even though they’re associated with schools.

Connecting With Outside Sites

The draft policy also says CMS social media accounts would not be allowed to “follow, like, friend or otherwise engage with” outside parties — or link to commercial third-party sites.

Board members quickly raised questions. What about businesses that sponsor a club, or hold a fundraiser for the school? What about links to community partners, or news organizations that cover schools?

"Should a sports team be able to follow the Charlotte Observer sports reporter?" Carol Sawyer asked.

Staff agreed to try again on that section.

Board member Sean Strain said it's easier to know intuitively when someone has crossed the line — "If you share something that you couldn’t write, then you shouldn’t have done it" — than it will be to spell out what's acceptable and what's not.

Teacher Watches With Interest

Nicole Jenkins had plenty of questions, too. She’s a Providence High English teacher who was home sick after getting her second COVID-19 vaccine. When she saw a Facebook notice that the school board was going live Tuesday she checked it out.

Providence Insta TV.png

"And I was like, oh, I run my school’s Instagram. I should probably maybe pay attention to this," she said.

Jenkins used to teach journalism, before the school lost a position and cut that class. Now, she says, Instagram almost functions as a school publication.

"I felt especially when we were sent home last year, so many parents and so many students really talked about how the school Instagram was the lifeline sustaining our school community," she said. "Because that’s where the kids are."

She wonders about school clubs that have social media sites run by students — would those be forced to close? She wants to protect First Amendment speech, "but I can also see where you have to be careful or someone can run amok with that."

What About Personal Accounts?

The school board committee ran out of time before it reached the thorniest section of the new policy: Spelling out the boundaries for employees’ personal social media use.

Personal posts — and posts on ostensibly private Facebook groups — became an issue during heated debate over when and how to bring students back for in-person classes. Some parents saw teacher posts they considered disparaging and unprofessional and reported them to school administrators.

The proposed policy says employees can’t use personal accounts for official school business, can’t fraternize with students and can’t share confidential information. It prohibits posting anything “hateful, racist, obscene, or vulgar” or anything that creates a disruption in the school environment.

Jenkins says she understands that, but wonders how it will be defined and enforced.

"Does someone’s personal politics, if one individual finds them repugnant, does that necessarily make them unqualified to be in the classroom? And I think that’s where that line is going to kind of be really strange to kind of navigate," Jenkins said.

Deputy General Counsel Hope Root told the committee the policy will help with tough judgment calls. Court cases have established that public employees have First Amendment rights to free speech, but they have to be balanced against professional standards.

"I think this really helps employees to understand what the limits are, to understand what they can and cannot do," she said.

And she says it should help ensure that all students, families and community members feel welcome in CMS: "As public employees of the school system, just like police officers and firefighters, teachers and school administrators must maintain the confidence of the public when they send their students to us, to know that they'll be treated fairly," she added.

The committee will discuss the rest of the policy in April. Once the policy goes to the full school board, there will be public hearings before members vote.

See the full proposed policy below.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.