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A COVID-19 Reminder: Inappropriate Teacher Social Media Use and OH&S Duties of School Authorities to Prevent Online Harassment

14-May-20

by the McLennan Ross Labour & Employment Team

Electronic online communication has ensured students across the province continue to be educated during the current COVID-19 pandemic. This context serves as an important reminder to school authorities of their ongoing OH&S statutory duties to ensure an online harassment free school environment and that employees of school authorities are expected to refrain from inappropriate online conduct.

Two recent B.C. cases highlight the importance of teachers maintaining professional boundaries in their electronic communications. On February 5, 2020, a high school teacher received a reprimand from B.C.’s Commissioner for Teacher Regulation for having posted insulting comments about religion in response to an invitation to attend an Open Mosque Day. On February 21, 2020, a teacher agreed to terms of discipline, including a lifetime ban for having sent sexualized messages to Grades 7 and 8 students and for having invited students to follow him on social media where he posted pictures of himself drinking shots in bars.

Inappropriate teacher social media use can create a loss of public confidence in the teacher, the school authority, and disrupt the proper functioning of the education system.

In addition to the Alberta Human Rights Act (which restricts harassment, including online harassment, on the basis of prohibited grounds such as race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.), a key source of protection from workplace hazards such as online and psychological harassment, is found in Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) Act.

The OH&S Act requires school authorities to adopt measures to prevent, or alternatively, control workplace harassment.  Workplace harassment is generally defined as a single or repeated incident of objectionable or unwelcome conduct, comment, bullying or action intended to intimidate, offend, degrade or humiliate a particular person or group.

School authorities must also ensure the psychological and social well-being of workers, which includes protecting teachers and non-teaching staff against harassment, bullying and psychological violence. School authorities may wish to review the following steps as they continue to manage this risk during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • developing or updating their workplace harassment prevention plan (to include online harassment);
  • ensuring the policy definition of harassment includes online and psychological harassment;
  • confirming their respectful workplace policy states (at a minimum) that the school authority is committed to:
    • eliminating the hazard of harassment, and if the hazard cannot be eliminated, controlling workplace harassment;
    • investigating all harassment incidents, including on-line harassment, and taking corrective action to address the incidents;
    • informing the parties involved in an incident of the investigation results;
    • indicating how controls will be implemented to prevent harassment;
  • regularly updating, managing, and consistently enforcing the school authority’s respectful workplace and social media use policies;
  • setting clear expectations as to the online conduct of teaching and non-teaching staff and that online harassment will be subject to appropriate discipline up to and including termination; and
  • training / updating school administrators and supervisors as to their supervisory duties under the OH&S Act to ensure workers are not subjected to or participate in harassment.

Inappropriate Social Messaging by Teachers and Breach of Trust

In addition to employment discipline, inappropriate electronic communication by teachers can lead to professional sanctions. Some examples of inappropriate messaging include:

  • intimate or personal texting with students;
  • inviting students to meet privately or without a valid educational context;
  • sending personal email or social networking contact information to students to communicate for personal reasons;
  • using informal and unprofessional language with students, such as profanity;
  • criticizing students, parents or colleagues openly on Facebook;
  • posting or forwarding content, links or comments that might be considered offensive, discriminatory or inconsistent with professional or ethical standards.

The January 17, 2017, Alberta Teachers’ Association article “Pitfalls and Precautions: No tolerance for teacher's bullying behaviour” highlights a decision of the ATA Professional Conduct Committee in which a high school teacher received a 6-month license suspension for having humiliated and bullied students for a 2-year period. While seemingly not an online harassment case, the decision is presumably an indicator of how the professional body would respond to online teacher-related harassing conduct.

A Reminder for School Authorities during these “Online Times”

School authorities must continue to ensure:

  • the health, safety and welfare of its teachers and non-teaching staff;
  • that its employees are aware of their OH&S rights (and duties);
  • that they are not subjected to or participate in online harassment; and
  • that any health and safety concerns raised by employees are resolved quickly by the school authority.

A Reminder for Students during these “Online Times”

Under the Education Act, students have a duty to refrain from, report and not tolerate bullying or bullying behaviour directed toward others in the school, whether or not it occurs within the school building, during the school day or by electronic means. School authorities may wish to ensure their administrative policies in this regard are up to date and include online conduct.

A Reminder for Teachers during these “Online Times”

Teachers are always teachers, whether they are on their own time or whether they are in the online classroom. When uncertain as to what to post online, teachers should consider erring on the side of caution. The ATA has issued several social media tips and takeaways for Alberta teachers, including the following:

The Council of the Ontario College of Teachers’ Advisory Maintaining Professionalism – Use of Electronic Communication and Social Media is an excellent resource which school authorities may wish to share with their teachers during this online teaching period.

Final Word

Maintaining professional boundaries in all forms of communication, technology-related or otherwise, is vital to maintaining the public trust and appropriate professional relationships. ‘Always think before you post,’ and ask, ‘Are your words or this photo something you would post on the school bulletin board?’

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