Teacher disciplined over “inappropriate” Facebook use

Another Facebook employment issue has hit the headlines in relation to a teacher who has been disciplined for posting “inappropriate and improper” comments on her profile page.

Elizabeth Scarlett, a Welsh primary school teacher, faced disciplinary action by the General Teaching Council for Wales after it was discovered former pupils of the school, 12 of whom were between the ages of 11 and 17, had been viewing her profile page.

Ms Scarlett’s offending posts had referred to her partying and drinking lifestyle, going so far as to boast to a former pupil “I’m not a teacher on here. I’m just like anyone else, I drink, swear… but don’t tell anyone.” It was noted how the image she tried to portray on Facebook was entirely at odds with the image she had tried to portray at school. Evidence of more explicit comments were also presented which were later disregarded on the basis their true author could not be verified.

Giving her statement to the panel, Ms Scarlett claimed to be unaware that her privacy settings allowed her profile to be accessed by everyone. However, the panel heard evidence that 32 of her 81 “friends” were former pupils of the school. As a result, it was considered unlikely that Ms Scarlett would have been unaware that these 32 “friends” would have direct access to her profile. Whilst Ms Scarlett had left the school in question, she received an official reprimand which would remain on her record for 2 years and which would need to be disclosed to future employers.

Whilst the case highlights the need for teachers to ensure that their use of social media sites such as Facebook does not get them into trouble, the whole issue is clearly a complex one. The general difficulties faced by employers in setting standards of behaviour and developing effective policies for social media usage has been recognised by bodies such as the Institute of Employment Studies and ACAS. The problems are especially pronounced in the teaching profession, where schools have to consider the best interests of their pupils against the legitimate rights of its teachers. The challenge for schools lies in making sure communication between pupils and teachers stays appropriate without resorting to outright bans on potentially useful communication tools such as social media sites.

Whilst Ms Scarlett’s case was a fairly extreme one, there will no doubt be less black and white situations where the professional morality of a teacher’s conduct is harder to discern. To circumvent such problems, University of Glamorgan social media expert Haydn Blackey has suggested that teachers adopt separate Facebook accounts should they wish to become “friends” with pupils on Facebook. Others have also called for clear guidance on the appropriate use of social media by local authorities which would assist in avoiding situations such as Ms Scarlett’s from developing in the future.

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