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Go Ask Mom

Go Ask Mom

Parenting Tip: Making sure teacher, student online discussions are appropriate

Posted October 27, 2011
Updated October 28, 2011

On Thursday, WRAL-TV's Kelcey Carlson had a story about inappropriate emails from a local principal to eighth grade girls. He resigned and lost his teaching license. But the man was eventually able to land two more jobs working with young people.

The story is disturbing on a number of levels, especially when online chats between teachers and students are becoming more prevalent..

I checked in with Dr. Amy Tiemann, center director for Kidpower North Carolina, which helps people of all ages and abilities be successful in learning and practicing personal safety, confidence, self-protection and advocacy skills. The group's aim is to help participants prevent or stop most bullying, molestation, assault and abduction. It holds workshops across the region for kids and adults.

Here's my Q&A with Tiemann:

Go Ask Mom: What kind of questions should parents ask school administrators or the leaders of programs their kids are involved in about what kinds of background checks are done?

Tiemann: I would ask what kinds of background checks are done AND what is done to look out for inappropriate behavior after teachers and administrators are hired. This applies to camp counselors, after school people, etc. In my experience, child-serving organizations are pretty good about doing standard criminal background checks, but are not as vigilant about guidelines and behavior once people have gotten in the door. That is an equally important aspect of child safety because there are many unidentified offenders out there who would pass a background check and even come "highly recommended" by other communities.

Go Ask Mom: What kind of online contact is appropriate for teachers and students? Is this something parents need to monitor?

Tiemann: That is a really good question and is an evolving issue. Nowadays, many students are required to communicate online with teachers and even turn in homework online.

Yes, it is an issue that parents should keep an eye on. The key boundary here is that teachers should not have a personal, private relationship with students inside or outside the classroom and that includes online.

Teacher communication must be professional and stay focused on official school work or activities.

You can see how this could be a slippery slope very quickly, becoming personal, if teachers are unaware of these issues or truly predatory. Schools need to be on top of this with their staff and have clear guidelines and expectations. It is really important for schools to communicate this especially because younger teachers will be of a generation that is used to constant online communication and they may not understand the boundary issues involved in emailing or texting a student.

One idea is to have teacher-student communications/emails cc'd to the parents as well.

Go Ask Mom: What are some tips for how parents can talk about this sort of thing with their tweens and teens?

Tiemann: I would let them know that contact with teachers should be professional and should occur through official channels -- for example, the classroom website, not personal email, calls or texting -- unless there is specific exception that the parents are aware of. (A phone tree telling families that school is canceled for a snow day, for example.)

Teachers should stick closely to official business and I believe they should not develop side conversations with students online. What is difficult is that, as I said, technology is evolving so quickly. But if schools use online contact then they are responsible for setting guidelines, informing staff and families about "the rules," and enforcing them.

Parents should be able to read any communications from schools to their kids. Tell kids this in advance and matter-of-factly so it's not covert snooping. School communication should be public.

And finally, don't make children feel like they are being punished here, Just set clear rules and tell kids "if there is anything that bothers you or worries, you, please tell me and we'll figure out what to do."

Tiemann is a Triangle area mom, center director for Kidpower North Carolina and one of the creators of the online resource Doing Right by Our Kids, which focuses on protecting child safety.

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