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Explicit texts, social networks challenge schools

A legal clinic for more than 50 LI

A legal clinic for more than 50 LI school administrators was held at Hofstra University on new challenges posed by Facebook postings, sexting and cyber bullying. (Jan. 13, 2010) Credit: Karen Wiles Stabile

With students sending explicit messages to each other via cell phone and teachers making inappropriate posts on social networking sites, school district officials have to learn what steps they can take to handle such challenges, legal experts say.

"It's a new area and the implications are new and the particular problems are new so the various school districts have to develop policies that are legally correct and appropriate so that children don't do the wrong things," said Martin Blum, assistant dean in the school of Education, Health and Human Services at Hofstra University where a legal clinic for more than 50 Long Island school administrators was held Wednesday.

The conference examined implications of the use of technology and its impact on schools, covering such topics as Facebook postings, sexting and cyber bullying.

Surveys show sexting is on the rise, with 22 percent of girls between 13 and 16 and 18 percent of boys in the same age group having electronically sent or posted nude or seminude photos of themselves. When a school official discovers any type of nude or seminude photo of a minor student, police must be called, school attorneys advise.

"Everybody has to be afraid of this stuff, especially kids who somewhat get innocently involved with a friend: The FBI will be at their door," said attorney Richard Guercio, who specializes in education law.

A student and employee code of conduct as well as prompt investigation of cyber bullying are some ways school officials can address these issues, school attorneys say.

Maryann Fletcher, principal of Hauppauge Middle School, said she has dealt with cyber bullying issues as well as students sending inappropriate messages, resulting in disciplinary consequences for students. "Being a middle school principal, my big issue is helping kids understand how such behavior can impact others," Fletcher said.

Rules are not just limited to students, but to teachers and staff as well, and to how administrators monitor and regulate a teacher's private social network account. Teachers who use a social network to communicate with students and then post something strikingly inappropriate could face what Guercio called "career suicide" and disciplinary action.

"Teachers have to realize that they are role models for students and what they post on their Internet sites may impact their ability to act as role models in the classroom," said attorney John Sheahan, who also presented at the clinic. "It is a daunting challenge for school districts to maintain an efficient school district environment in the face of student and staff use of Internet, cell phones and social networks."

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