New social-networking policy fails to make grade with Westport teachers

Overriding objections from the Westport teachers' union president, the Board of Education on Monday night approved a new policy that sets guidelines on social-networking use by school employees.

The policy mandates that employees' use of social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, not breach confidentiality obligations, not harm the reputation of the school district, and forbids personnel to make "friend" requests to students or parents on Facebook.

Kathy Sharp, the teachers' union president, expressed reservations about some of the guidelines, but her opposition to the policy's passage on Monday focused mainly on procedural concerns.

"I think a part of this whole process that's been missing has been collaboration," she said. "It's difficult. I don't feel that the WEA [the teachers' union] is involved with the process, and I think that would be helpful here."

The dispute marks the second time within a month the school board has clashed with the teachers' union. On March 21, the board voted not to renew non-tenured teachers' contracts for the coming school year, a move that Sharp roundly criticized.

Although it was introduced last December, the social-networking policy only recently turned into a source of contention. While the WEA had evaluated an April 4 draft of the policy, Sharp said the union had not received communication that a new draft would be reviewed Monday by the board.

Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon responded, however, that Sharp was a recipient of the draft when it was reportedly sent out in an e-mail blast April 8. He added that the final draft responded to concerns about the policy outlined in the teachers' union's review of the April 4 draft.

Sharp maintained, though, that union members did not have the chance to study the new draft in "full detail" and that the WEA needed legal counsel present to ensure a fair review of the policy. The Board of Education was represented at the Monday meeting by its lawyer, Tom Mooney.

"I do think we could get some representatives and work together on this to create a policy that really makes sense for Westport," she added.

But Landon turned down that proposal and instead pushed for the policy's immediate adoption by the education board.

"I think collaboration is appropriate when an item is appropriate for collaboration," he said. "This is a policy for protection of children. It is not a negotiable item."

Board members rallied around the superintendent.

"We have no guidance for people right now," Mark Mathias said. "I think we need to put something in place."

Board Chairman Don O'Day added that the policy would likely be modified within the next couple of years to incorporate recommendations for its improvement.

Shortly after, the board voted 5-1 to approve the policy. Board Vice Chairman James Marpe was not present at the meeting.

After the meeting, Sharp declined to comment to the Westport News on what, if any, action the teachers' union would take in response to the Board of Education's approval of the social-networking policy.