Friday, July 4, 2008

Internet Safety for Teachers

When considering the topic of Internet safety, as teachers we generally think of our students and protecting them from things like online bullying and online predators (who, in a non-hysterical risk assessment, are pretty much equivalent to the bogeyman).

What teachers seldom consider are the risks the online world pose to themselves. These risks are quite real, and it's frightening just how quickly a career can end based on a flimsy, dubious, or outright fraudulent allegation. Do you really want to be listed in the blue pages of Professionally Speaking?

When you communicate with parents and students online, you open yourself to a whole new medium for bullying, harassment, and allegations of misconduct. Something as simple as giving a child your e-mail or website address can be interpreted as "grooming" the child for exploitation, and can directly lead to a variety of serious ramifications.

Be aware that even the most innocuous things can form the basis for misconduct allegations, and that a member of the public can go to the Ontario College of Teachers website and easily find instructions on how to file a complaint against a teacher.

Such complaints, regardless of their validity, set in motion a series of events which will make your life very unpleasant and possibly end your career. This will involve a College of Teachers investigation, possibly Children's Aid and/or the Police, and likely an investigation by your school board. Do not assume these investigations will be fair, rational, and unbiased. In many cases you are considered guilty until proven innocent (and often treated as guilty even if proven innocent), and in most cases there are no consequences for the complainant if their allegations are proven false.

In absolutely no circumstances should you make any statements or comments without first contacting ETFO Protective Services at 1-888-838-3836.

So, what is a teacher to do? In the modern world we can't avoid being on the net. But we do need to take appropriate precautions. Enable all privacy controls available for any online presence you may have on the net (Facebook, MySpace, etc.), use strong passwords, and always strive to keep unprofessional images and postings off the net. Despite privacy precautions, assume everything is public to some degree.

Never engage in personal conversations with students or their parents online. Keep everything on a professional level. Always keep your administrator and students' parents informed and involved in any online activities you're conducting with your students.

We serve in a very public role in our profession, and we interact with a fairly random sample of the members of the public. We are under constant scrutiny, and since our charges are children, we can expect that any kind of question that might arise regarding our professional conduct probably won't be evaluated in the most rational manner. In these circumstances, a little bit of paranoia is actually warranted, as people really are out to get us... but always being cognizant of taking appropriate precautions should avoid any potential problems.

ETFO has released PRS Matters bulletins relating to these issues, which are valuable reading:

Electronic Communications

Understanding Professional Boundaries

Allegations of Sexual Misconduct

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