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Pitfalls of Communicating with Your Students through Social Media

by Gaines West, Attorney-at-Law, West, Webb, Allbritton & Gentry

Do you Tweet, Snapchat, Instagram, Text, or Email with your students? What if that student won’t email you and instead insists on communicating with you in Tweets or Snapchats? Who doesn’t want to have a good stream of communication with their students? Don’t you want to be clear in your communication with a student who frequently sends you a Snapchat? What’s wrong with returning that message using the same messaging platform the student chose?

Well, there can be plenty wrong with doing so, and here is why: most colleges and universities now have a zero tolerance policies regarding harassment - sexual harassment, or really just about any kind of harassment {like bullying}. Some of these platforms chosen by your student are actually designed to have the messaging deleted. Here’s what is worse: the student can be taking screen shots of the messages, even selectively editing them, leaving you with no rebuttal to the harassment claim.

Unlike phone calls, {in Texas} you can record them without telling the person on the line {as long as you are in the conversation} that you are recording it. Electronic messaging that auto deletes may be impossible to recover. Here is the Big Deal - with no electronic trail of your messaging, your institution will likely believe the accuser and you {under the zero tolerance policy} will be out of a job. It shouldn’t happen, but it does - every day. NEWS FLASH - this is a new day in professor/student communications. You may mean nothing at all by that joke you send, or that invitation to lunch you make - but to the student, who may have ulterior motives {even blackmail}, another “understanding” of what you wrote is now ALWAYS in “play.”

Let’s go over some basic reminders: 1) if you are talking on the phone, expect that you are being recorded; 2) you have NO expectation of privacy for the communications you send or receive on your college owned/supplied computer - ALL your communications can be reviewed by your employer; 3) don’t communicate on a platform that auto deletes the messaging - ever. Following these three suggestions might just keep you from becoming the subject of a complaint.

“The information in this column is intended to provide a general understanding of the law, not as legal advice. Readers with legal problems, including those whose questions may be addressed here, should consult attorneys for advice on their particular circumstances.”

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