Schools Must Get Social by Joe DiBenedettoSchools have always been challenged in effectively communicating with the entire school community. Today with the advent of technology and ubiquity of smartphones, communication channels are abundant. Schools are no longer limited to newsletters, email or snail mail to share news with families. Facebook and Twitter allow districts to interact instantaneously with their constituents. More importantly, these channels provide their constituents with a voice, a voice that is far stronger than ever before, a voice that enables them to comment on matters in a truly public forum, not just at a Board of Education meeting.

Greater district access to families, and vice versa, is a positive development. The more informed the community, the greater level of engagement parents have in their child’s education. This is what every school strives for, as research shows that student performance increases when parents are more actively involved in the learning process.

While increasing communication channels is critical for schools, it does present additional challenges. At the forefront of many of these communication channels are the students, who are utilizing popular social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat to connect with peers. Throughout hallways and in classrooms, students are using smartphones – compact and handheld devices that are more powerful than the desktop computers many parents grew up with – to take photos and videos to share with their friends and followers. Most, if not all districts have guidelines limiting smartphone use in schools, but the sheer volume of students and phones makes it nearly impossible to eliminate all usage throughout the day. This means that anything taking place within schools can be broadcast to the public at a moment’s notice.

Equipped with these powerful devices that can capture and report immediately, issues such as the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act (FERPA)  come to the forefront. FERPA is a federal law, applying to all schools that receive funds from the U.S. Department of Education, protecting the privacy of student education records. In brief, schools are limited in what information they can share as it pertains to their students, including photos and videos. But does this include photos and videos taken and distributed by their peers when captured within the boundaries of the school?  It’s unclear and certainly will be a problem schools must address in the future.

Along with opening themselves to potential legal ramifications, districts must be aware of the communication issues that may arise with students serving as citizen journalists within their schools. Photos and videos shared by students across social media, whether of seemingly innocent or potentially damaging situations, may lead to a crisis that must be handled by the school. However, unlike years passed when such situations were limited to the school’s community, these instances can now “go viral,” turning the school into a national spectacle. Therefore, schools must be prepared to handle situations well in advance of them taking place.
The above is not meant to frighten school officials. Rather, it is a reminder that communication is vital to the success of any organization, be it an institute of learning or a Fortune 500 company. This is why schools should embrace social media, not avoid it. Much like the other communication tools that schools have relied on for decades, simply developing a plan on how it should be used and creating standard operating procedures for dealing with a crisis, via traditional or social media, must be at the top of every district’s to-do list.

Joe DiBenedetto is a senior director at Lambert