Guidelines for Online Communication between Teachers and Students


The state of Virginia has recently proposed guidelines for public schools in order to prevent sexual (and other forms of) misconduct between educators and students. Justin and I have blogged about this issue here and here in the past – and it continues to be a topic of strong interest and controversy as we work with administrators across the nation.


First, I really like the fact that Virginia’s Board of Education has attempted to tackle the issue, as so many states and school districts are not being proactive enough to formally hash out this issue.  Seemingly, this was prompted by the fact that 120 of the 169 actions taken against educators’ licenses since 2000 had to do with some type of misconduct involving students.


Also important to mention is that at least 46 educators have been arrested due to this problem, with half of those cases involving problematic computer or cell phone communications. I don’t have the statistics yet, but it is possible that these trends are mirrored in other states across the nation, as I don’t think Virginia is alone in its struggle to address inappropriate interactions between school personnel and students.


First, let me bring your attention to their model policy for electronic communications with students:


• Teachers and other school board employees must restrict electronic communications with students to accounts, systems and platforms provided by the school division.

• Teachers and other employees may not use personal wireless communications devices to “text” students and are prohibited from interacting with students through online social-networking sites.

• Teachers and other school board employees must decline or disregard invitations from students to interact through texting and social-networking sites.

• Teachers and other school board employees may not knowingly engage in online gaming with students.

• School board policy on electronic communications with students also applies to teachers and other employees of virtual school programs and other vendors providing instructional services to students.


Overall, the state’s Department of Education states that communications should be transparent, accessible to supervisors (I don’t see how this differs from “transparency” – someone let me know…), and professional in tone.


They also specify guidelines for in-person communications with students:


• Conversations with students should focus on matters related to instruction and school activities.

• School board employees and volunteers should not initiate discussions about their private lives or the intimate details of the private lives of unrelated students.

• Conversation by school board employees and volunteers with students that could be interpreted as flirtatious, romantic or sexual is prohibited.

• The sharing of sexually explicit or obscene jokes and verbal “kidding” of a sexual nature between school board employees, volunteers and students is prohibited.

• Private, one-on-one conversations with students should take place within the potential view, but out of the earshot of other adults — such as in a classroom with the hallway door open. This policy also applies to conversations between volunteers and unrelated students.

• School board employees may not conduct an ongoing series of one-on-one meetings with a student without the knowledge of the principal and without written permission of a parent or guardian.

• The school board’s policy on in-person communications with students also applies to teachers and other employees of virtual school programs and other vendors providing instructional services to students.


Obviously, interacting via technology allows for personal thoughts, emotional content, and private feelings to be shared more readily than in person – and of course allows for one-on-one conversation outside of the purview of other adults, removing accountability and perhaps increasing notions of undetectability. The vast majority of educators will not abuse this – but some will. I feel that the work that VDOE has done in this area is pioneering, and I look forward to seeing what feedback is received to refine these guidelines before they are codified.


  1. The VADOE is continuing the rampant, geriatric trend of trying to control all aspects of an employees life. In my opinion, they should never and will NEVER have the right to control our personal lives, "off the clock". Professional conduct in and outside of the workplace aside, these policies make for an interesting starting point, but surely represent a Sherman-esque "total war" approach to this new era of electronic communication. I have read accounts by commenters that claim, "If teachers already see students for 8 hours a day, they shouldn't make themselves available after that time." They then proceed to allude to the transition to the work world, where deadlines must be met, and bosses can't be emailed at 10pm. These comments clearly reflect a disregard, and possibly fear, of the connectivty our world can now experience. For one, my wife is on her Blackberry communicating with co-workers from 630am on up to 1130pm on a DAILY BASIS. The age of instant communication is upon us, and the children are being baptized in the waters of quick, reliable digital communication. For educators, school board employees, and even volunteers to be expected to disengage from ALL online activities that can be remotely construed as non-school related socialization, is not only impossible to enforce, but an incredibly backa**ward and near-sighted way to inviolate every DOE publication that professes to "embrace" technology for the advancement of students. Using existing technology such as Facebook, participating in on-line gaming, texting students, and trying to govern, with the possibility of disciplinary action for engaging in "non-instruction related dialogue" is simply wrong. I hope that VADOE is simply considering all options as they enter the planning stages of this new guideline, and that they fully expect to reduce the expectations by a large amount. Based on the budget crisis that all counties in Virginia face on a yearly basis these days, I can hardly expect any division to actually purchase and maintain the monitored cell phones, laptops, support personnel, and training materials that this sweeping, Communist Manifesto of a doctrine would entail, nay REQUIRE. Considering as of April, most of the support staff will be fired, anyway. Good luck controlling the internet, Va! The CIA has been trying for decades, and I daresay they are better at it than you are.

  2. I have no concrete answers. But, in a perfect world, teaching would be a highly attractive profession. It would attract our best and brightest. We would require advanced degrees for consideration. Pay, perks, and expectations would be higher. Class sizes would be smaller. We would have no shortage of teachers because of its attractiveness. We would have a more educated workforce because education would be so highly valued. We would not have to resort to this type of micromanaging because our educators would be more focused and mature, having spent more time learning the pedagogy.

    That being said, I hope that the guidelines that Virginia enacts are effective enough to allow the BOE to address the bigger problem.

  3. In an article from March 7, 2010 an incident is discussed in which a teacher sent her 15-year old student pictures of herself that included her exposed genitals and text messages suggesting sexual acts between the two. Melinday Dennehy taught at Londonderry High School in New Hampshire and had apparently kissed her student on two separate occasions in addition to her actions gaining the attention of the school and officials. The pictures were discovered when the student forwarded them to his friends.

  4. I wonder two things… First and unfortunately, there were inappropriate behaviors occurring between teachers and students long before there was social media… is mandating that teachers and students don't interact going to change that? Second, there are so many benefits to students being able to ask teachers questions on homework or a project if they get stuck at home at night that I wonder if not allowing those interactions to occur is appropriate. Prior to social media I remember conversations about whether or not teachers should give students their home phone number to call if they got stuck on their homework. Some of the best teachers I knew gave students their telephone number and over the years indicated that students had not called them except for help. I think if students could quickly text a teacher a question, it might lead to increased achievement. I also believe that some schools (KIPP) do require teachers to be available via cell phone at all times for students and parents– I am not saying this extreme is correct, but KIPP schools do show excellent student achievement. I predict this topic is something schools will need to quickly address if they are not already.

  5. I am a medical professional and our organization has a website that allows patients to email their doctor with questions and get responses virtually 24/7. It is secure with both doctors and patients having passwords to the system. These interactions are all documented and become part of the patient's chart. Is there not some way (expensive I am sure) that school systems could use the same type of system to document exchanges between the student and teacher?

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