Are NJ schools going too far with social media discipline?
Joe Strupp, Asbury Park Press
TOMS RIVER – A new social media policy for members of the Toms River Regional Board of Education calls on board members to “exercise care and good judgment” when posting on social media sites.
District officials, however, insist that a recent firestorm over one board member’s divisive Facebook posts had absolutely nothing to do with the change.
The policy — slated to be introduced at Wednesday’s school board meeting — mirrors rules for social media conduct on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube that have been adopted by several other school districts in New Jersey.
Superintendent of Schools David M. Healy said the social media policy for board members was suggested earlier this year by Strauss Esmay Associates, LLC, the company that consults with more than 500 school districts about policy and regulations.
“It really is designed to protect protect board members,” Healy said. The policy, he added, has been discussed by the board and administrators over the past several months, to alleviate some board members’ concerns.
The decision to introduce a social media policy is not connected to the controversy over anti-Muslim Facebook posts made earlier this summer by school board member Daniel P. Leonard, Healy said. The controversy drew national headlines and calls for Leonard to resign.
Healy said the board, administration and professional staff had been discussing the policy for several months before Leonard drew the ire of Muslim groups and concerned local residents for Facebook posts on one of his personal pages.
“It had nothing to do with that,” Healy said. “It’s there to protect both the boards and districts.”
Leonard said he plans to vote against adoption of the policy, which he termed “ridiculous.”
“It takes the power away from the elected BOE member representatives and gives carte blanche and free rein to the superintendent and the board attorney!” Leonard wrote in a text.
The policy advises board members to exercise care when posting on social media sites, and urges them to recognize that they are “held to a higher standard than the general public with regard to standards of conduct and ethics.”
Board members should be aware that social media postings could violate the School Ethics Act, which governs their conduct, the policy states.
“A board member’s use of social networks shall not damage the reputation of the school district, employees, students and their families,” the policy states. “Board members who use social networks shall ensure their conduct is appropriate for a board of education member.”
The social media policy advises board members to:
- Uphold the district’s value of respect for any individual(s) and avoid making defamatory statements about the Board of Education, the school district, employees, students or their families.
- Not disclose any confidential information about the school district or confidential information obtained as a result of being a board member, about any individual(s) or organization, including students and/or their families.
- Not use or refer to their board of education title when soliciting for a business organization that he or she or any immediate family has any interest in.
Leonard’s Facebook post that attracted the most attention — and anger — included a photo of U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat who is a Muslim, above a link to a Fox News article about Tlaib calling for a hunger strike — in response to U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement’s treatment of immigrants at the Southern border.
Leonard wrote: “my life would be complete if she/they die.” Leonard claims that his post was not meant as a threat to Tlaib. Instead, Leonard said, he meant that he did not care if she starved, since she was advocating a boycott of a government agency.
In addition to CAIR-NJ, a national civil rights group, Muslim Advocates, and several politicians, including Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and Gov. Phil Murphy, called on Leonard to leave the board.
But Leonard also has his supporters, who urged him not to resign, and said they didn’t believe he had done anything wrong. Leonard announced in August that he would not seek re-election to a second three-year term representing Beachwood on the nine-member regional board.
He also said he will not resign before his term expires in December.
Some members of the audience who have attended recent school board meetings had asked the board and district officials why there was no social media policy in place for board members. The district already has a social media policy in place for staff.
Severe penalties for some social media posts by students have recently drawn the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union and other free speech advocates.
School administrators claim broad authority to penalize students for off-campus conduct, including posts on social media, relying on codes of conduct, anti-bullying policies and favorable language in court rulings.
The officials note their reach extends to online actions during the summer or school vacations, inasmuch as the students remain enrolled in their institutions.
Learn more about the dispute over students free speech rights and school districts’ ability to intervene to punish students for social media posts in the video above this story.
Healy said that board members have a right to free speech, just like any other Americans.
“You have your freedom to say what you want,” Healy said.
But board members’ free speech rights is not absolute, as they are held to a higher standard than other members of the public, he said, and their postings must not present the district in a negative light.
Jean Mikle covers Toms River and several other Ocean County towns, and has been writing about local government and politics at the Jersey Shore for nearly 35 years. A finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in public service, she’s also passionate about the Shore’s storied music scene. Contact her: @jeanmikle, 732-643-4050, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff Writer Joe Strupp contributed to this story.
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