On the heels of fiery debates over critical race theory, an accreditation review and other topics that have made their way to social media, the Cobb school board is expected to consider on Thursday the creation of a new employee social media policy.

The guidelines, which outline expected conduct on outlets including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and personal blogs, address expectations for both personal and professional social media accounts and would ban employees from making any statements that could harm the district’s reputation or question its judgment.

‘The question is, why now?’

Some district staff have historically aired their grievances with district policy, or what they say is a lack of attention to issues of equity or incidents of racism, at board meetings, while others have also taken to social media to make those grievances known.

Critical race theory, for example, has been a divisive topic in Cobb and in districts across the state as of late, and groups both in support and in opposition to the subject are expected to show up for demonstrations during Thursday’s board meetings.

One of those groups, which has labeled its event “Educational Justice School Board Meeting Demonstration,” was organized by an elementary school counselor.

The timing of the district’s proposal of a policy that would stifle speech critical of the district is “unusual,” according to Cobb school board member Tre Hutchins.

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Leroy “Tre” Hutchins

“I’m not really in favor of anything that takes away someone’s voice and the freedom to speak their mind and express how they feel, good or bad or indifferent,” Hutchins said, “Which is why I have a problem with many of the things that are happening recently.”

Stifling speech, he said, continues to uphold only one narrative or opinion, “and that’s a problem.”

“That’s not a free society.”

Hutchins said it’s been concerning to watch “any narrative that’s different from the status quo” be shunned and discredited at the local and state level.

“I don’t want everyone’s opinion to be the same. The beautiful thing about our country is you can have your own opinion, and you can express it however you feel necessary. Anything that is opposite of that, it feels unconstitutional,” Hutchins said. “The question is, ‘Why now?’”

For his part, Cobb school board Chairman Randy Scamihorn said he was not aware of whether the district proposed the policy in response to an uptick in social media postings from employees.

Randy Scamihorn mug

Randy Scamihorn

Scamihorn did say, however, that many of the 18,000 employees in an organization as large as the Cobb County School District would likely want to know what the district’s policy is on social media use.

In terms of whether some provisions of the policy could have chilling affects on staff’s ability to bring to light concerns that they feel are not being addressed by the district, as some staff in the district have expressed to the MDJ, Scamihorn said those concerns are understandable.

But, he added, “the intent is, to use a cliché, criticize in private, praise in public.”

“So if they are criticizing an issue, an employee or a policy, there are other avenues besides a supervisor,” Scamihorn said.

Employees could go to human resources or ask to speak with school district attorneys, for instance. It’s understandable though, he said, that it can still be tough to right a perceived or actual wrong.

“I understand that, but we have to have guidelines and parameters, just like we have speed limits on our highways,” he said. “Nothing prevents us from exceeding the speed limit on the highway, but we do so at our own risk, do we not?”

District spokeswoman Nan Kiel did not directly respond to whether the new policy was created after district employees took to social media to voice their opinions on certain topics. Kiel did, however, provide the MDJ with an emailed statement:

“Tomorrow’s administrative rule modifications, which speak for themselves, have been in the works for months,” she said. “If approved, like every Board policy, they will enable effective operation of all Cobb schools.”

What’s in the policy?

The proposed policy says the district recognizes the educational value of social media but also recognizes the danger it can bring when used irresponsibly.

Among other items, the new policy, which pertains to both personal and professional accounts, would prohibit employees from using social media in a manner that “places in doubt the reliability, trustworthiness, or sound judgment of the district, the Cobb County Board of Education, or any of its employees”; discredits the district; violates various privacy laws; or spreads inappropriate content or hateful speech.

Employees would also be banned from initiating or accepting friend requests from students, messaging with students or displaying pictures or videos of students on personal accounts.

A proposed addition to the employee ethics portion of district policy would also bar employees from speaking to media without first coordinating their interactions through the district’s communications office.

Should it be approved, the district could discipline or fire any employee that violates any provision of the policy.

The Cobb school board will meet at 514 Glover St., Marietta, on Thursday for a work session with public comment at 1 p.m., followed by an executive session. The board will return for a budget hearing at 6:30 p.m. and a voting session with public comment at 7 p.m.

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Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas.

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