By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — After a 5-year legislative battle, the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, named for a middle school student in the 1980s who was molested and sexually abused by a teacher for more than a year, was passed by both the Missouri Senate and House and signed into law by Gov. Jay Nixon July 14, 2011. By Jan. 1, 2012, all public school districts in the state were to have adopted a written policy concerning teacher-student and employee-student communication, including appropriate use of electronic media such as social networking and other Internet sites and text messages. In his written signing statement, Gov. Nixon cautioned that the Amy Hestir Act would only have limited impact because it requires only public schools to share information. It doesn’t mention parochial or private schools. “All students attending schools in Missouri should be protected. A comprehensive solution to this problem must involve both public and private schools.”
The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph was already at work on a Social Media Policy for school administrators and employees, ministry staff and any diocesan employee and volunteer working directly with minors.
The policy, which was modeled on the social media policy of the Diocese of Tucson, was approved by Bishop Robert W. Finn on Nov. 23, 2011, to be effective Jan. 1, 2012. One of the principles underscoring the policy is that Diocesan employees and volunteers who communicate through social media and business networks, including Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In and Google +, represent the Catholic Church and should, as a matter of course, give witness to the values and teachings of the church.
First and foremost, the policy states, diocesan employees should recognize that any and all information posted to a social network site or online community is or can be public information. It cautions employees and volunteers to remind other members of the network or online community of their position in the church, to never post inappropriate material or comments to their own or any other site, and to promptly remove inappropriate material or comments posted by others from their site. Employees and volunteers should exercise discretion, posts should reflect Church community values and transparency is vital. Users of social networks and online communities should use their own names, not pseudonyms. Ultimately, the policy says, responsibility for personal and professional content resides with the employee or volunteer.
Rebecca Summers, diocesan Communications Director, said the Diocese recognizes that cell phone texting and instant messaging are preferred modes of communication for youth, and teachers and coaches may need to utilize them. The use of social media networks in communication with youth, however, is restricted by the policy, she said.
Social network communication between diocesan employees or adult volunteers with youth under age 18 who are or were under the adult’s care or supervision in an official activity, including school and field trips, sports practices or competitions, retreats or mission trips, should occur only on official sites of the diocese, ministry, parish or school, or through parent or guardian approved contact methods. A written consent form, signed by the parent(s), is required. As with the Amy Hestir Act, parents or guardians of youth in diocesan school, parish or ministry activities must be able to see any and all communication between adults and their youth. Summers added that according the requirements set forth in the policy, one-on-one or private communication, including email, text messages, Facebook postings, text or audio/visual chatroom communications or instant messaging between adult employees or volunteers with minors is prohibited except where permitted by the parents or guardians by a signed permission form. Consent forms will be maintained in a centralized diocesan location and updated annually.
Associate diocesan School Superintendent Pat Burbach said that social media networks will be used by schools to be in contact with their communities (adult alumni as well as current parents). Coaches use it to contact teams, their parents and other coaches. All diocesan policy guidelines have to be adhered to, as stated in the policy, she said. The guidelines state that diocesan employees and volunteers must be transparent in all electronic interactions. “Exercise sound judgment when communicating and establishing relationships with youth, and do not place yourself into a position which could be viewed as compromising or which could have the appearance of impropriety. … follow safe environment guidelines and Codes of Ethical Conduct always. Adults must be vigilant to protect God’s children.”
The guidelines emphasize that employees and volunteers should set personal profile pages to a “private” setting so that youth can not access adult personal information.
“We are now working on a process to add Facebook and a blog to our diocesan site,” Burbach said. As the school office’s website is an official diocesan site, two adult site administrators will monitor the use of the network, the consents and permissions. The site name, administrators’ names and passwords will be registered at a centralized location.
Summers added, “Good boundaries are necessary.”
Jon Schaffhausen, diocesan youth office director said, “The use of social media in youth ministry varies from parish to parish and has evolved just as the technology itself has evolved. Everyone knows that teens don’t communicate by email anymore, so that isn’t effective, and that a teen is much more likely to text a friend than call them. Besides texting, Facebook is the other main way that teens interact electronically.”
Schaffhausen added, “Anyone who works with teens longer than 30 minutes automatically receives a crash course on teens’ use of social media because within that time a teen has probably texted 2-3 times and checked Facebook updates on their phone.”
Like any other technology, he said, social media is neither good nor bad in itself, how it’s used is what matters. “Some youth ministers use social media very effectively but it takes a real commitment to stay on top of things, update them — it’s a lifestyle choice to stay constantly linked to a phone or computer and communicate that way. I don’t think it’s a must though. Because teens are constantly bombarded by quick and meaningless communication, it takes more than one text or Facebook message to get their attention. I think personal invitations and handwritten cards are as effective as ever because they’re so rare, and they show that someone REALLY cares enough to take the time to do that.”
Schaffhausen noted that, “Everything about social media is paradoxical — texting and Facebook allow for uber-connectedness but are actually less relational. Blogs and Twitter keep everyone up-to-the-second but they also foster a culture that changes every 24 hours, rendering yesterday’s trends and news obsolete.”
The diocesan Youth Office has both a website, kcsjyouth.org, and a Facebook page. Invitations to Youth Office events are sent through the Facebook page and it helps get the word out. Even if it didn’t, Schaffhausen said, “We have to have a Facebook page to prove that we’re hip.”
Youth Ministry centers around inviting teens into a community of disciples, he said. “For that, absolutely nothing replaces the impact of a personal, face-to-face invitation. For ongoing program communication, just having information available online along with flyers, mailings and phone calls gets the job done. I think every parish youth ministry should have a website as a basic outreach to the families and teens.”
Schaffhausen said it’s difficult to state which social media network is most used by youth. “I would say that youth definitely text more than anything else, followed closely by Facebook. Not many Twitter and hardly anyone emails. Youth ministry, that is, adults reaching out to teens on behalf of the Church, won’t be using very much Facebook or texting because of the new (diocesan social media) policy (and common sense), although with parental permission it can still happen. It’s essential to keep parents in the loop so emailing to parents is effective in youth ministry, along with personal outreach to both teens and their parents.”
Summers said that according to the latest tallies, there are 700 million Facebook users, actively using the network 700 billion minutes per month. There are 90 million tweets per day on the Twitter network, and more than 2 billion YouTube video views. Even email often goes public — 92 percent of emailers share their content online.
Social media can be a positive means of sharing the Gospel message, she said. It is an affordable communications tool that allows immediate 2-way conversations. Pope Benedict XVI and the U.S. Bishops use social media networks, which reinforces its applications within the Church. It can reinforce authentic messages from the church and set the stage for what occurs in the school, parish or ministry community.
Facebook, texting, email, Twitter and other networks can be valuable tools for people of faith out in the world to use to evangelize.
To read the policy visit http://www.diocese-kcsj.org/_docs/Social-Media-2011.pdf.