March/April 2016

Chat rooms, discussion forums raise red flags

By Melinda Selbee, Kimberly Small, and Cathy Talbert

Although discussion forums and chat rooms may provide school board members with useful insights and support, there are inherent dangers. These dangers can be understood and mitigated by understanding cautions and adhering to the following best practices.

Caution: Discussion forums may precipitate Open Meetings Act violations.

Whenever there is a gathering of three or more school board members to discuss public business, the Open Meetings Act requires school boards to give notice and post an agenda for a meeting to avoid violating the law. A gathering includes any coming together through electronic means. A discussion of public business means an “exchange of views or ideas that pertain to the business of the school board.”

Discussion forums and chat rooms generally provide their users some type of disclaimer, e.g., “… don’t post messages about official board matters.” They try to steer users away from violating sunshine laws that apply to them. While disclaimers like these are necessary for this type of service, they cannot negate the slippery slope that electronic conversations present for Illinois school board members.

The biggest risk to school board member users is their lack of control over conversation. The Illinois Attorney General has opined that conversations can morph into public business discussions. During in-person conversations, board members can control their participation in the discussion easily -- by moving to another room, stopping the conversation, or leaving the conversation. However, it is almost impossible to control conversations in electronic communication settings. Morphing during electronic communications can happen quickly and inadvertently when board members try to help one another and share experiences.

Even more damaging is electronic evidence of these conversations.

In electronic communications, especially chat threads, board members have little control over gathering numbers reaching a majority of a quorum of their school board. Users participating have no idea who may enter or leave various conversation threads. Board members also have no control over whether their fellow board members morph a conversation into public business. While board members can be educated, warned, and disclaimed to control their own behavior to avoid sunshine law violations, if one in a gathering of a majority of a quorum in an electronic chat morphs the conversation to public business, all board members have violated the Open Meetings Act.

Caution: Sharing information requires prudence.

Board members must be careful about information they post in an online discussion forum. The level of care must exceed rules and etiquette of ordinary chat rooms. Each message posted will test the individual’s credibility and merit as a school board member. Moreover, an individual board member may be liable for violations of the law or damages to individuals caused by his or her indiscretion.

State and federal laws protect the privacy of school district staff members and students. Posting information from which an individual student or staff member can be identified may violate one or more of these laws. For example, describing the backstory to a notorious event involving students in your district may be an inadvertent disclosure of the students’ school records, and could subject you to possible legal damages.

Posting negative comments is always dangerous. Posting negative comments about individuals or companies may be actionable libel. Critical comments made about an employee may demonstrate bias against the employee. When this occurs, the board member may not participate in deliberations concerning that employee’s employment without potentially violating the employee’s constitutional due process rights. Posting negative comments about a fellow board member may seriously harm future board relationships.

Board members must also avoid prematurely posting information. The General Assembly recognizes that public entities can be harmed by premature release of information. It exempts preliminary drafts, notes, and recommendations from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. Board members should follow that practice.

Posting information that was discussed in a lawful closed session can damage the school district. For example, the district may be harmed if a board member posts bargaining strategy that was discussed in closed session, and the post is read by the employees’ bargaining representative.

A board member, unless authorized by the board, has no authority outside of a board meeting. Yet, messages on a discussion forum may appear official. Board members must carefully distinguish their individual ideas and opinions from that of the entire board.

In summary, board members should follow sound governance practices when posting to a discussion forum. To help protect relationships and avoid legal challenges when posting to a discussion forum, board members should respect privacy interests, avoid negative comments, avoid premature disclosures, avoid sharing confidential information from closed session, and avoid appearing to speak for the board.

Caution: Applicability and accuracy of information in discussion forums should be verified.

Everyone knows there is immeasurable bad information on the Internet. Yet, when information appears useful and comes from a similarly situated individual, the temptation is to give the information inherent credibility. Before relying on information or an opinion from a discussion forum, readers should independently verify the credibility of the source: check the author’s credentials and reputation. Readers must also evaluate the accuracy of the information offered in discussion forums. This requires readers to check whether the information is current, research- or experience-based, and complete. To help evaluate information or an opinion, readers can ask for additional information, resources, and supporting data.

Even information that has been verified may not apply. Contributions to a national discussion forum will come from individuals in numerous states. Many, many state laws and agency rules control almost all aspects of public education. Information that is shared on a discussion forum may not be applicable to Illinois school districts. For example, information on managing nonresident students may appear useful but, due to state law, using the information from someone in another state could violate an Illinois statute. To critically evaluate information in a discussion forum, readers should first determine whether the information is applicable to their state.

Finally, readers should always question whether the source of the information or opinion on a discussion forum has a bias. Is the information or opinion offered to promote a particular group? Is the information or opinion based on facts or an interpretation of facts? Strong points of view can significantly bias perceptions.

Caution: Discussion forums and chat rooms can distract board members from their work and from the work of the school board.

IASB’s Foundational Principles of Effective Governance state that the board sits in trust for the community and that certain fundamental responsibilities arise out of that trustee role. These principles provide a job description for the school board (see page 24).

Specifically, Principles 1 and 2 provide that the board is responsible for clarifying the district mission, vision, and goals (ends). In order to determine those ends, the board must connect with the community to determine the community’s goals and aspirations for education, as well as what the community is willing to provide in the way of resources to pursue those ends. Board members should not confuse individual board member participation in a discussion forum or chat room with community engagement. To do so is likely to lead to false assumptions about community values, misalignment of ends with community expectations, and ultimately lack of community support. True community engagement is an ongoing process by which school boards actively involve diverse citizens from their community in dialogue, deliberation, and collaborative thinking around common interests for their public schools. This is a two-way conversation with the board identifying purpose, providing information, and seeking to hear from all the voices in the community through an intentional and ongoing process. It takes time and effort and generally involves a variety of engagement methods.

Principles 3, 4, and 5 provide that the board is also responsible for hiring a superintendent, delegating to the superintendent the authority to pursue district ends within the parameters established by law and school board policy, and monitoring district performance. A quick perusal of education-related discussion forums and chat rooms often find that conversation topics stray from the work of the school board into administrative and management issues.

Regardless of the medium of discussion, board members regularly need to regularly ask themselves, “Is this topic board work? Is this where I or the board should be focusing our time and attention?”

Board members and boards that stray into administrative matters can interfere with the superintendent’s ability to do his or her job effectively. It’s much harder to hold the superintendent accountable for district performance if a board member or board has taken action that potentially compromises the ability of the superintendent to act.

Principle 6 provides that the board, individually and collectively, is responsible for itself — the work it chooses to do and how it chooses to do its work. Discussion forums and chat rooms can be seductive, but board members need to ask themselves if participation in discussion forums and chat rooms will make them better board members or if instead, will only serve to distract them from their real work. Board members are busy people and as such, want to make the best use of their time and talents. Board members need to ask themselves what benefit, if any, they or the board will receive from the investment of time in these online chats.

Be cautious. Because the risks may ultimately outweigh any possible benefits, there are more effective options for gathering information, engaging with the community, and professionally developing as a school board member.