Yet, I honestly don’t mind these minor inconveniences. In most cases they make me a more thoughtful social networker. I take the time to navigate my way through being true to myself and honest while still taking on the responsibility of being a part of the public face of our ministry. Why? Because it gives me ministry opportunities I wouldn’t otherwise have.
I am a firm believer that we should meet teens where they are with positive Christian role models and ministry opportunities. If Facebook is where they are, then that’s where I’ll be too. Bringing a positive force into that realm and promoting God-pleasing ministry is not easy but it is important. And it’s an opportunity some teachers might not have this next school year.
Lawmakers in Missouri passed the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act this past May, and it was signed into law in July. The bill is a wide, sweeping act designed to protect students from teacher and school employee misconduct. While the bill contains many different protections for students, one provision getting the most attention restricts how teachers can communicate with students on social networking sites such as Facebook. “Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian,” the law states. “Teachers also cannot have a non-work-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student.”
While it’s clear the law is trying to limit teacher-student interaction on social networking sites, it is not clear in what it allows and what it forbids, and left many school districts frantically trying to write up policies for their teachers before the start of the school year to keep them from breaking the law. Some interpret the law to say teachers cannot be friends with students on Facebook. Others are concerned the law could prevent teachers from legally opening an account on any networking site their students use or even emailing students. Yet other interpretations say that while teachers and students can be friends, they are only to communicate using public means that are readily visible to parents and school administrators. The confusion about what is permissible under the law has led to fear that teachers will not be able to tell the difference between legal and illegal communication and so stop communicating completely out of fear.
A lack of communication between teachers and students does not appear to be a bad thing in the minds of many legislators. Legislators commenting on the bill believe that this law simply keeps teachers and students from the type of interaction that could mask misconduct. One legislator commented that private messages are a “breeding ground” for sexual misconduct. Another has even gone so far as to say that teachers should not be communicating with students outside the classroom at all, and that all interactions outside of school are unnecessary for both the student and the teacher.
Many teachers’ groups are concerned that this will severely limit their ability to help students when they need it. If Facebook is the way students communicate about class work, clubs, and questions about homework, then not allowing teachers to be a part of that conversation is taking away their ability to help their students. Teachers who previously held “office hours” on Facebook will no longer be able to offer that help. Even when they limit the interaction to public forums, the student who is struggling will be far less likely to publically ask for the help they need. Teachers argue this rule will not stop predators and instead ties their hands from communicating helpful, necessary information to their students.
The struggle of these teachers is not so different from the struggle of many youth leaders. How can we set appropriate, healthy boundaries with teens without losing our ability to connect with them where they are? I want to be able to communicate with the youth in my ministry, giving them vital information about ministry and offering them every opportunity to build a relationship with me. At the same time, I want all my interactions with those same youth to be safe and above reproach. As technology continues to change, the rules and guidelines for adults working with teens will have to move and adjust.
Ever since this story hit the national news, I have been pondering the flip side of my desire to meet youth where they are, and considering coming up with a more comprehensive set of guidelines to how I connect with students over the internet. I wonder if in my eagerness to meet and build relationships with youth and connect online, I have failed to put in the right policies and procedures to protect them and myself. The risk management policy at our congregation says that no adult should meet with another minor alone. Yet do I think twice when I begin a chat conversation alone with a student? We train our students to look for potential predators online, but I never stopped to consider what types of accusations might be made against me based on my use of a site like Facebook.
I am not sure if the Missouri law is the wave of the future or even the best plan for protecting students and teachers. I do think that it is starting the right kinds of conversations about how to protect adults and the young people they work with as they interact in this technology-driven era. I am continuing to rethink and adjust my personal policy on social media interactions, and I hope that we can continue to have conversations about how to keep our online connection with youth healthy and safe.