Highland Park, News

District 113 emphasizes communication policies in wake of social-media controversy

Township High School District 113 officials made a point in April of reiterating the district’s staff-student communication policies after those policies came into question earlier this school year.

District 113 School Board President Anne Neumann addressed district faculty on April 1 before the school day, reiterating a School Board statement delivered via email on Feb. 14 that stated staff members would not be disciplined for protected speech on personal social media accounts.

During a School Board meeting April 9, Neumann summarized the April 1 meeting and presentation with staff, and on April 12, Superintendent Dr. Bruce Law sent an email to district families with the district’s communication and social media policies.

The discourse comes in the wake of a district educator’s controversial social media activity in late 2023 that led to online harassment, a leave of absence and the resignation of School Board President Dan Struck.

The presentation to district faculty and Law’s community email focused on two portions of the district’s social media policies:

• A district staffer can maintain personal social media accounts if the accounts refrain from identifying with the individual’s role with the district. According to the policy staff can express personal views and “should also be free from being harassed … when expressing constitutionally protected speech that people disagree with.” Staff members are also allowed to manage professional social media accounts that are owned by the district, as long as they follow the district’s content guidelines.

• District employees are not allowed to communicate with current students on their personal social media channels. Communication must occur through district-approved channels.

Neumann, as well as Law, said it was an important time to clarify its policies regarding social media with the numerous contentious issues impacting not only the area, but the world. Those issues include, Neumann said, the ongoing legal proceedings of the Highland Park shooter, the Israel-Hamas War and the 2024 presidential race.

The inciting situation

On Dec. 12, a Deerfield High School teacher, whom The Record is choosing not to identify, reportedly shared content on Instagram related to the conflict in Israel and Gaza.

The district provided The Record with a written reprimand issued to the teacher that explained the content was originally posted by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, an author and historian of race and civil rights. Through his social media accounts, Kendi has criticized certain violent action of Israeli forces in Gaza and the West Bank; however, The Record could not confirm which message the teacher shared. Because the content was shared on the teacher’s Instagram story, it was auto deleted within 24 hours.

The district received complaints about the content, and in an email to district families on Dec. 14, Struck wrote the teacher’s activity “implicitly disparages the personal beliefs and human decency of a substantial portion of our student body.”

While not identifying the teacher, the email implied the district was considering disciplining the teacher.

From there, the issue was introduced in social media circles, such as within local Facebook groups, where the teacher was identified, and the teacher and students who defended the teacher reportedly were verbally attacked. Parents told the district the teacher and students were also harassed inside the school.

The teacher, who is still a district employee, took a leave of absence, while Struck resigned in February after receiving criticism during board meetings.

The School Board has since made clear that district employees cannot be disciplined for content shared on their personal social media accounts.

In a review of the teacher’s social media activity, District 113 found that the teacher’s Instagram account was used for both professional purposes and personal content, against district policy. The teacher also violated district policy when she communicated with students through her Instagram and SnapChat accounts — neither is a district-approved communication platform.

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joe coughlin
Joe Coughlin

Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319

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