Introduction: Most teachers and youth pastors desire healthy and trusting relationships with their students. But, clear relational lines must be drawn. This blog posts attempts to create a framework for schools and churches to consider when establishing these boundaries with their school and church policies.
Note: Protect Young Eyes is not providing legal advice in this post. If your organization has questions about the liability associated with certain types of digital communications between staff, volunteers, and minors, including social media, please consult an attorney. Any best practice policies we might point to are simply templates that should be customized by an organization in consultation with legal counsel, to fit its specific situation.
“Teacher dismissed for talking to student on Snapchat”
I have Google set to send me daily summaries of trending news associated with three keywords. These Google summaries are three emails that each have a summary of the most popular links related to “YouTube,” “Snapchat,” and “Instagram.” Today’s news about Snapchat included two articles about teachers who used the popular social media app to send inappropriate Snaps and in one of the cases, the sexually charged messages led to groping in class (this particular ex-teacher has been indicted on sex charges).
Since I am a former middle school youth ministry director, I understand the need to create relationships with students. While I was in ministry, social media and SMS texting were two primary ways to create connection with students. In fact, we essentially encouraged our junior high students to stay connected with ministry happenings through our Instagram account and actively taught volunteer leaders to exchange phone numbers with students in order to keep in touch with their students.
We did this because we found that many kids struggled with face-to-face communication. Therefore, when it came to more sensitive issues, sometimes a text message conversation was the communication channel used by a kid to open up and bare his/her soul about what was going on.
That was then. This is now. The risks have changed. As a result, we believe the rules must also change.
Social Media Interaction between Leaders & Students
According to Terri Miller, president of S.E.S.A.M.E. (Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation), “Adults are saying things to children online and via text that they wouldn’t say face to face. They forget who they’re talking to. This can be a prelude to sexual contact.”
For teachers, I believe the case for prohibiting as much personal, digital communication with students as possible seems quite obvious in today’s risk environment.
But, youth ministers and student pastor will likely find this recommendation a bit harder to swallow, given the relational context for their connection with students. Are we recommending that all digital communication be shut off between adults and kids? No. But, whether you are 14 or 40, the internet has an uncanny ability to press on our weaknesses. It probes and prods, one click at a time, until one message leads to another, and thus begins the slow fade toward really bad places.
No youth pastor who has ever been convicted of inappropriate interaction with a minor ever woke up one day and said, “I want to ruin my testimony, reputation, marriage, and career by sending a sexualized text message or Snap to a student today.” Instead, it happened one click at a time until he/she was somewhere they never, ever intended to be.
School Policies: A Framework for Protecting Digital Communication between Students, Teachers, and Youth Pastors
Hans Mundahl is the Head of School for Sant Bani School and the founder of Hans Mundahl & Associates, which works with schools to craft policies. He believes every school should have a social media policy outlining how teachers should and shouldn’t interact on social media (we offer a free social media policy template at the bottom!).
In addition to a policy, an organization might consider how it achieves the following attributes, which we believe are also essential to an overall approach to protecting digital communication:
- Consent – parents should have a strong voice in what kind of digital interaction is occurring with their children. An organization may decide to obtain this consent annually through a form signed by parents (if you download the “Staff Volunteer Communication with Youth Policy” in the pop-up on this post, you will also see a “Media Consent” form).
- Clarity – an organization’s policies pertaining to how it governs digital communication with minors should be easy-to-find and readily available if requested. Many Catholic diocese, like the Catholic Diocese of Dallas, prominently display their Safe Environment policies, which include policies pertaining to communication with minors.
- Compliance – once a policy is issued that governs digital communication with minors, an organization should create processes that check for compliance with the policy. This could be achieved through regular training sessions with staff and volunteers.
- Consequences – the organization must be willing to enforce whatever policy it creates. This is for the protection of the child and the reputation of the organization (in that order).
As stated above, please consult with your legal counsel whenever creating or adjusting policies dealing with protecting an organization from liability. Protect Young Eyes does not provide legal advice.
Should Teachers (and Youth Pastors) be “friends” with Students?
Probably not. But, whatever level of digital communication is permitted must be clearly understood and likely approved by parents. That’s the “consent” part of our recommendation above. We believe this part is essential.
What’s my next step?
We’ve provided a suite of free school and church policy templates that can be downloaded and customized for your situation. Download yours today! (they apply to both secular and faith-based schools, and also church environments)
Policy examples included include:
- Chromebook policy best practices
- Social media policy
- Interaction with youth policy
- And more!