Kittery School Committee members, from left, Rhonda Pomerleau and Anne Gilbert join Superintendent Eric Waddell and Chairwoman Julie Dow at a May meeting in this Seacoast Online file photo. Credit: Hadley Barndollar | Portsmouth Herald

KITTERY, Maine — The School Committee held a first reading of a proposed staff social media policy Tuesday night, one that would prohibit school district employees from communicating with students on digital platforms outside of school-related activities.

The policy comes months after the Kennebunk school district experienced heightened attention when a former high school teacher was found not guilty of sexually assaulting a student. The trial raised the question of hazardous digital communication between teachers and students, and the challenges school administrators face in trying to create policies that protect both parties.

The proposed policy is a first for the Kittery School District, Superintendent Eric Waddell said. Currently, the district doesn’t have any policies dictating behavior of staff on social media.

“Staff members are prohibited from following students or engaging in any other interactions on social networking sites or through any digital applications outside of any school-approved activity,” the policy states. Staff conduct on social media must also follow School Committee policies, procedures and rules; nothing that distracts from or disrupts the educational process or operations of schools.

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Waddell said the policy does not cover texting or phone calls, however, he noted appropriate communication in that arena is already covered in the employee professional conduct policy.

The School Committee must hold two public readings of a policy proposal before any action is taken. Vice Chairwoman Kim Bedard raised concern that staff members had not seen the policy yet or been a part of the process to craft it. Policies are drafted by a subgroup of the committee, and then brought to the entire body.

Waddell said after the first reading of a proposed policy, he typically posts it online and shares it for community and staff input ahead of a second reading.

“If it’s a brand new one, and it has the title ‘school staff’ in it, I would feel more comfortable getting that input prior to having it come to me,” Bedard said. “Because I just feel that is part of the discussion at the table. That’s a voice that needs to be heard in the discussions. If we had a nursing policy, we would have the school nurse there.”

Chairwoman Julie Dow said the policy will not be approved until feedback from staff is gathered. “We may have to put it off until we have another policy meeting to make the changes with the input from people before we bring it back to the board,” she said.

Member Anne Gilbert said it’s the School Committee’s job to set policies. It’s up to the policy committee to decide if it’s moving forward with a proposal, and then get feedback, she said.

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“We worked really hard in developing a policy that acknowledged responsible use of social media,” Gilbert said. “This policy in no way limits anybody’s ability to connect with students in creative and innovative ways. We’re actually supporting that. I think this discussion makes me nervous because it sounds like this is a punitive policy and it’s not. It’s a policy that protects staff in being connected with students in ways that are valuable to students, and that is meaningful to students. I hope our discussion goes in that vein, that we’re supporting teachers.”

The School Committee approved the first reading of the policy 5-1.

In Kennebunk, after former teacher Jill Lamontagne was acquitted of 14 charges, and where testimony against her included 96 text messages and 43 phone calls between her and the student in question, the issue was raised of how teachers can communicate with kids in a small community, where many roles are intertwined.

The Maine School Management Association has sample policies school districts can use to craft their own local policies around digital communication.

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