The NASUWT teachers union used its 2014 annual conference as an opportunity to draw attention to the impact that misuse of social media is having on teachers. A survey of its members revealed that one in five teachers surveyed had experienced ‘adverse comments’ written about them online. Angela Brumpton considers the impact that use of social media and online forums can have in the school environment and offers some tips on steps that can be taken to counter abuse and protect staff.
Two equally important issues
Social media issues in schools can be separated into two distinct categories. The first is social media risk from an employment stand point - schools are increasingly required to deal with issues arising from the misuse of social media by their staff. The second, of equal concern, is the use of social media forums by members of the public to criticise schools and their staff. This second scenario is more difficult for a school to take action on, but the effect on both the school and individual members of staff can be equally damaging.
Cyber bullying is an increasing issue for schools, not least given that as the employer, the school can be held liable for distress or injury to feelings and ordered to pay damages. This includes instances of an employee bullying or harassing a colleague online outside of work. Otomewo -v- Carphone Warehouse Limited, while not in a school context, is a good example of a case in point. Two members of staff accessed Mr Otomewo’s iPhone at work and updated his status: ‘Finally, came out of the closet. I am gay and proud.’ Mr Otomewo brought a claim for sexual orientation harassment, which was successful at the Employment Tribunal and Carphone Warehouse was held vicariously liable for those posts.
To ensure that you are in a position to take action against employee perpetrators, cyber bullying should be included in your dignity at work policy, your bullying and harassment policy and disciplinary policy. A school should ensure that staff understand that cyber bullying will be treated in exactly the same way as any other form of bullying. If comments are posted outside of work but a sufficient link can be made to the workplace, then an employer will most likely be obliged to take action.
Online contact with pupils
In the school environment it is important to ensure that there are clear rules in place to prevent or limit the contact members of staff have with pupils online. Inappropriate contact can not only have significant ramifications for the individual teacher, but can also cause major reputational damage to the school. In 2011, more than one in ten school teachers accused of misconduct had used social networking sites and email to forge inappropriate relationships with their pupils. Facebook, Twitter, online chat rooms and emails were used to befriend children in 43 cases brought to the regulator, the General Teaching Council for England, in 2011. In one case, a 50-year old teacher posted inappropriate comments on Facebook, including: ‘I am not a teacher on here. I’m just like everyone else, I drink, swear and sh*g but don’t tell anyone.’ She had 81 friends on Facebook, including 32 former pupils, 12 of whom were between 11 and 17 years old. She received an official reprimand which will stay on her record for two years.
In another case, a science teacher posted pictures of herself smoking from a bong and in which she appeared to be drunk. She was suspended for nine months and told that before she could return to teaching, she would have to undertake coaching in professional boundaries. Clearly either of these scenarios would be likely to attract negative publicity for the school and therefore damage to its reputation.
The importance of having a clear disciplinary policy and relevant training in place dealing with this issue cannot be underestimated. Posting anything online which may tend to bring the employing school into disrepute, is a disciplinary offence and should be dealt with under your ordinary disciplinary policy. It is important to check that your policies adequately cover reputational issues and deal specifically with use of social media in both work and private time.
Adverse external comments
It is more difficult for a school to take action in support of its staff, where the perpetrator of online abuse is an external party such as a parent or former pupil. If the comments are sufficiently serious, they may be considered defamatory. The new Defamation Act 2013 sets out that a statement can be said to be defamatory if the publication ‘caused or is likely to cause serious harm to reputation’. If a body trades for profit, serious harm is not suffered unless serious financial loss is caused or likely to be caused to the body making the claim. As the Defamation Act has only been in force since January 2014, there is not yet any case law considering exactly what the ‘serious harm’ test means. It may also be harder for schools, if they are considered public bodies, to claim for defamation.
Individuals employed by public bodies may consider bringing a personal action in defamation if they have been identified. This is, however, a complicated and developing area and advice should therefore be taken if this action is being considered. Individuals may also consider actions in privacy and harassment. Another option if comments made are sufficiently serious, is to refer the matter to the police for criminal investigation. Difficulties aside, don’t be deterred from making complaints, even if you are not sure of the source of the comments. There are ways and means of locating the origins of posts on social media, so don’t be afraid to seek advice.
In terms of employee misconduct, schools should be certain that they have appropriate policies to cover social media abuses and that they are correctly and consistently applied. As well as using such policies, to protect the school, consider providing training to staff to ensure that they are fully aware of the consequences of adverse online comments and how easily they can get out of hand affecting both the school’s reputation and their own career. Schools also need to offer appropriate support to any employee affected by critical postings on social media in order to meet the duty of care as an employer.
Issues involving online abuse cannot be dismissed as ‘out of work’ issues and support can take the form of internal pastoral care or making counselling services available. Doing so can be an important tool to limit the distress such behaviour can cause and prevent it from resulting in long-term sickness absence or, ultimately, an employment tribunal or civil claim against the school. Schools should also consider taking or supporting legal action where that is appropriate.