Facebook: Friend or foe among high school students and teachers?

Thursday, February 7, 2008 | 8:49 p.m. CST; updated 4:25 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Philip Overeem, a British literature teacher at Hickman High School, uses Facebook to inform his students of extracurricular activities. Matty Bennett, a junior at Rock Bridge High School, uses the Web site to keep in touch with his ninth-grade drama teacher Mrs. Sueltz.

A new bill proposes a stop to student-teacher interaction via limited-access social networking Web sites such as Facebook, but some teachers and students argue this interaction is useful for quick communication and the success of school-related clubs.

The dilemma teachers and club sponsors face is that high school students rarely check their school e-mail accounts or listen to school announcements, Overeem said. Some decide to use social networking Web sites, which students check frequently, as a means to spread news of events.

The bill's intent is to protect children from inappropriate interaction. "We're trying to make sure parents know that there is not private communication that is blocked from that student's parents or other school staff or administration," said Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, a sponsor of House bill 1314.

Although the bill would prohibit teachers from providing student access to their (teacher) profiles, teachers would still be permitted to share information about school clubs and events via school Web sites, student e-mail and Blackboard, an online classroom management tool.

The bill would change the way Overeem communicates with students on behalf of his Academy of Rock, a high school music group he founded in 2004 that performs at venues in Columbia. He uses Facebook to create online groups and events to get the students more involved. After using Facebook for about one year, attendance at meetings has improved 50 to 60 percent. This manner of communication is more efficient, he said.

“Our number one thing is to try to get as many people to see (the Academy of Rock) concerts as possible,” Overeem said. “Facebook helps with participation, attendance and communication. ... As for now, it is the most effective way we’ve found to quickly communicate information to the most people and get as many people as we can to events.”

Jami Thornsberry, a teacher at Hickman, said she decided to get a Facebook account this school year after realizing what an effective tool it is for communication and announcements. She teaches law and U.S. studies and also sponsors three clubs. She has used Facebook for club announcements, T-shirt sales, last-minute details on events and programs and to generate support for group candidates and charities.

“I have found Facebook to be one of the most accessible and efficient ways to conduct club business,” she said.

Thornsberry also said she thinks the Web site had a tremendous effect on club attendance and membership.

“I think it played a role in our record-breaking Charity Fair this past October,” she said.

Rock Bridge junior Amanda Archer has not interacted with any teachers on Facebook, but she said she would if her teachers had accounts.

“It would be more helpful if my teachers had Facebook,” Archer said. “It would be a more casual interaction.”

Perhaps it is the comfort level of social networking Web sites that is both helpful and creates warrant for worry.

“Legislators who put (the bill) together have valid concerns,” Overeem said. “But if you can ensure the teacher uses it with discretion, you’re in good shape. Unless I’m told otherwise I will continue to use it.”

The Missouri House Education Committee added a section to the Amy Hestir Davis Student Protection Act last week that would forbid teachers from using “non-work-related Internet sites,” including social networking sites, to communicate with students. The bill is named for a Missouri student who said she was sexually abused by a teacher. An investigation by The Associated Press also found 87 cases of sexual misconduct involving Missouri teachers from 2001 to 2005.

Thornsberry said she understands the concern, but she maintains that the benefits of Facebook far outweigh the negatives.

“I firmly believe it is the tool of this generation and we need to embrace this type of networking,” she said.

“I am familiar with the (bill) and to be honest, I think there are some very sound measures within the bill to make sure sexual predators are not employed in our schools,” Thornsberry said. But she does not agree with the part of the bill that is calling for a stop in the use of social networking Web sites by teachers with their students.

“I fear that the benefits of these sites have been totally overlooked by the sponsor of this legislation,” Thornsberry said. “I really do think that we should embrace technology and not run screaming from it.”

Aside from using Facebook as a tool for quick and more efficient conversation with students, it is a way for students and teachers to stay in touch even after high school. The bill would allow teachers to give former students as well as students 18 and older access to their profiles.

Overeem also keeps in touch with his former students but addressed a potential negative aspect to that.

“As a teacher I’m not exactly thrilled to see a drunken former student making a stupid face and holding up a beer can,” he said. “Either I’ve been lucky or my high school students are smart enough to not do that.”

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