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Q: I’m a high school teacher and baseball coach in my early 30s. My students relate to me, but I work hard to make sure they view me as their teacher, not their friend. I use social media, but I don’t interact with kids online. The only exception is Facebook, which I use to organize team activities. I have a colleague who thinks I’m overly restrictive. He will engage with students on Snapchat or Instagram in a joking way, “liking” their comments and photos. We are both men, and I think he’s playing with fire. I told him I was concerned and advised him to cut it out, but if anything he’s blurring boundaries even more. I am 99% sure he would never do anything inappropriate with a student, and I don’t want to “tell” on him, but that 1% doubt is getting to me. Do I have a responsibility to tell my principal? Is there another way to handle this so I don’t explode the friendship?

A: This is a touchy subject that isn’t going away any time soon. Social media can be a good way to communicate with students and parents, but teachers have an obligation to keep those relationships professional and to model positive, respectful online behavior.

In this case, your friend clearly isn’t answering homework questions. This situation can be broken down into multiple parts, but let’s start with the legal. Although your friend’s behavior may violate school or district policy, you are not compelled to make a report unless you suspect child maltreatment. Think about other times you have witnessed a teacher break a rule or do something wrong. Do you approach the principal every time you see a colleague sneak into work five minutes late or photocopy a personal document?

This brings me to your ethical obligations. That 1% doubt is causing you stress, and I think you should listen to your gut. As professionals in this field, we rely on our intuition. Where there’s smoke, there’s often fire. If you sense brewing trouble, there are steps you can take to prevent problems from developing. You mention that you told your friend to cut it out, but it’s unclear if you made a passing comment or formulated a well-articulated argument.

If he doesn’t buy into the idea that his behavior crosses boundaries, hit him with some facts, then ask him what advice he would give a friend. I imagine he is interested in keeping his job. Start with school policy, then progress to court cases. For example, this January a Maryland school district worker was fired after correcting a student’s spelling in a tweet. School officials and the school board felt her tone and approach were too laid back.

Many teachers believe they can say whatever they want on social media. However, plenty of court cases prove otherwise. In Spanierman vs. Hughes, a 2008 case, a teacher in Connecticut was fired because of his postings, one of which teased a student about his girlfriend. A federal court ruled that his termination didn’t violate his right to free speech because his behavior was “likely to disrupt school activities.” You may find it especially relevant that another teacher had initially told Spanierman to take his page down, and he had complied. When he then created another, similar page, that same teacher reported him to their administration.

Sometimes, administrators are one step ahead. Many principals will spot check teachers’ social media use when they suspect impropriety. They can access even more information if their staff is interacting with students using school computers. Even newspapers have gotten in on the game, reporting on embarrassing things teachers have posted online. In an article titled “When Young Teachers Go Wild on the Web,” the Washington Post shared a number of examples, including one high school art teacher who was fired for painting canvasses with his buttocks on YouTube. In an era when everything is permanent, and even future employers may Google him, would he be happy to share all of his online interactions with the world? If not, perhaps that’s a sign that something is amiss.

Even as you are working to educate your friend, you can approach the principal to suggest that staff may benefit from extra training on school social media policy. You also can suggest that administrators remind students not to engage with teachers online unless it relates to academics or extracurricular activities. At some point, you may feel you need to report your friend even though you value the relationship. You may choose to do this anonymously, but be prepared to come clean. In the meantime, his online persona is making you uncomfortable, so don’t forget that you can block or unfriend him. The shock of that alone might stop him in his tracks.

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