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Teacher-student interaction needs boundaries

by Walt Gardner

Special To The Japan Times

By banning all communication between teachers and their students through email, messaging applications and phones after the school day is over, 11 prefectures and three cities in Japan are throwing the baby out with the bath water. That’s the lesson many school districts in the United States have learned to their chagrin.

In the wake of 781 sex crimes committed by school employees against students in 2014, an investigation by the former chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Education found that 36 percent of teachers used social media to initiate or carry out their crimes.

Contrary to widespread belief, the teachers were male and female, as well as single and married. They were math teachers, choir directors, football coaches, and teachers of the year. Furthermore, the victims were male (38 percent) as well as female (62 percent).

As a result, it’s tempting to ban all contact between teachers and students after the school bell has rung on the assumption that it’s better to be safe than sorry. But that policy would not pass legal muster and would have other unintended consequences.

Several years ago, Missouri attempted to prohibit teachers from having private online conversations with students. But a Cole County Circuit Court judge immediately blocked the law from taking effect on the grounds that it would have a “chilling effect” on free-speech rights. Since then outright bans have been shot down in other states by the courts.

Equally important from an educational point of view, the draconian law would have destroyed the bond that exists between teachers and students. For students from broken homes, their teachers often are the only adults they can confide in. Depriving them of this lifeline would undermine all other efforts to help them.

Social media can also be an important tool for reinforcing teaching and learning. In fact, several highly successful charter schools in the U.S. require their teachers to be available online to help students after hours by providing them with smartphones. The question is where to draw the line? As with other controversial issues, the devil is always in the details. But it can be done.

In the mid-1980s, the Los Angeles Unified School District faced a legal crisis when an administrator failed to inform the proper authorities about a child who appeared physically abused. It ordered all schools to establish a workshop to explain the rules regarding mandated reporting. It was successful because teachers knew exactly what was expected of them.

Teachers have been hired to nurture and protect their students. Once they are properly trained, they should be allowed to use their professional judgment in determining what constitutes appropriate interaction with their students. Those who violate this trust need to be promptly removed from the classroom.

If Japan is anything like the U.S., where 95 percent of teenagers have consistent online access and 81 percent of them use some kind of social media, it’s futile to try to fight technology. Instead, schools need to provide teachers with a set of clear guidelines followed by ongoing training.

There’s no way to totally protect students from tech-related scandals, but this approach is the best option.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.