July 24, 2024

Newton school board unsure of social media engagement policy

Officials question whether the rule has any purpose outside of general awareness

School board members and administrators of the Newton Community School District look over the results of a survey on March 20 in Emerson Hough Elementary School.

Although there is still another policy reading to review before it is officially adopted by the Newton school district, school board members on May 8 were hesitant to approve the new social media engagement policy, which seems like it would restrict their speech and conduct in online forums.

School board members enjoy rights to freedom of speech under both the U.S. and Iowa Constitutions, the policy states, and as such the district “will not limit protected speech of any board members.” But the policy also goes on to say certain categories of speech are not protected and are subject to regulation.

According to the policy draft, board members have legal obligations to safeguard the privacy of information related to student and employee matters, and as such are refrained “from posting or communicating on social media in a way that violates the district’s obligation to protect the privacy” of those individuals.

Even in situations where school board members intend to correct information for the rest of the community in a response to a social media post or something similar, they cannot do so if it violates the privacy of students and employees. Board members are encouraged to direct concerns to appropriate district staff.

Protected speech can still subject board members to legal liability. If using social media to discuss district-related matters, for instance, board members should be aware they may be prohibited from blocking individual communications and posters based upon the content of their posts.

By being publicly elected to govern the district, board members accept a fiduciary responsibility and agree to always act in the best interests of the district.

“For this reason, the board shall expect that individual communications and social media posts made by board members will reflect the values and decorum expected of elected officials in the school community,” the policy states. But some board members shared concerns over the policy.

School board member Donna Cook said the policy is discretionary but not mandated. Josh Cantu, vice-president of the Newton school board, said the policy feels more like “awareness” to elected officials, but he was unsure if it is necessarily in the board’s best interest to adopt the policy.

“I don’t see what benefit it gets us outside of just general awareness,” he said.

Other elected school board members, like Mark Thayer, said it feels like there could be some ambiguity with the policy, especially if one was to make a comment on some of the more sensitive issues politically. Thayer felt the same as Cantu, saying he didn’t see a need for the policy.

Cantu recalled a social media session he attended for the Iowa Association of School Boards where an official shared an experience of a post that was meant to be positive but was taken negatively; this inevitably led to a person posting negative comments, which the school board official attempted to block them.

“It seems like it creates a lot of gray area of what to do and don’t do,” Cantu said.

School board member Travis Padget challenged that neither having the policy nor not having the policy will change that response. Cantu said the policy does not outline what happens when a school board member does not follow the policy.

Robyn Friedman, president of the Newton school board, said the board could take the recommended policy — word-for-word — and place it in the school board member handbook instead and essentially accomplish the same goal without it being listed under a policy umbrella.

The school board voted 6-1 to pass the first reading. Thayer voted against it. If any changes are going to be made to the policy, it will be done at the second reading.

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.