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Dist. 128 outlaws personal Web chitchat between students, staffers
By Russell Lissau | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 3/26/2010 12:32 PM | Updated: 3/26/2010 12:32 PM

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Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128 employees can't use their personal e-mail accounts to contact students under a policy enacted this week.

Instead, teachers and other workers must use their official District 128 e-mail accounts to communicate with students.

The rules also say staffers can't play online games with students, and they warn against using text messaging to communicate with students.

Befriending current District 128 students on the Facebook social media Web site is specifically banned, too. Facebook groups no longer can be used to communicate with students, the rules say, but Facebook fan pages are OK.

The rules, which were enacted this week by the District 128 administration, are designed to protect students, employees and the district, officials said.

They were prompted by questions from teachers and other employees, and publicized problems that had arisen in other districts, rather than problems within District 128.

"There were lots of examples out there of inappropriate use ... but not in our district," said Technology Director Mick Torres, who drafted the policy with district spokeswoman Mary Todoric.

The rules may be the first for an area school district, officials said.

"We know that there are lots of districts using Facebook (and) Twitter ... but we have yet to find one that has established standards for how these social networking tools can be used by teachers," Todoric said.

The policy, which did not require school board approval, took about two months for Todoric and Torres to develop.

It's designed to ensure electronic communication with students is transparent and professional. The rules also remind staffers that electronic communications can be considered public record and could be accessible by people who aren't involved in the initial conversation.

It applies to all of the district's 562 employees - including teachers, administrators, aides and part-time coaches. Employees were informed of the new policy via e-mail Wednesday.

Torres and Todoric received many questions about the policy, and they said the reaction has been positive.

One employee wanted to know how to de-friend a student on Facebook without hurting the teen's feelings, for example. Others thanked them for creating the policy.

"I appreciate that d128 stays up-to-date on technical issues while maintaining a careful usage policy," Libertyville High international languages lab aide Nancy Tassler said in an e-mail to Torres. "This is the best way to protect everyone involved!"

Vernon Hills High choral teacher Jeremy Little is grateful for the rules, too. Many teachers form familiar working relationships with students that leads to informal communication, he said.

"It's very helpful to have guidelines that recognize and encourage our close work with students while at the same time drawing clear boundaries and helping staff avoid any pitfalls," Little said.

The rules will be revised as digital communication tools evolve, officials said.

District 128 is no stranger to breaking new ground with Internet rules. It gained international attention in 2006 by creating codes of conduct for student Internet use.

Those rules, which remain in effect, apply to students involved in sports or other extracurricular activities. Such students - an estimated 80 percent of the student body - must sign conduct pledges to participate.

The rules say students could be suspended from a sports team or activity for "maintaining or being identified on a blog site (that) depicts illegal or inappropriate behavior." Online depictions of drinking, fighting, hazing and other infractions could result in similar punishments.

Naperville Unit District 203 adopted similar student rules in 2008.

District 128's new staff Internet policy is viewable online at: district128.org/content/electronic-communications-expectations.