For everyone Maintaining mindful communications online

  • By Ursula McBride
  • This article was published more than 2 years ago.
  • 30 Jun 2021

Keeping children safe is an important responsibility, and one that AEU members share. The compulsory child safety standards apply to all registered schools and staff working with children. Members should be aware of their obligations, particularly in the current environment and during periods of remote learning where communications have moved online.

Whilst members will be aware that overly personal or intimate physical touching without reasonable cause would be a breach of professional standards, boundaries regarding online communications may not be as clear. Such breaches can be taken just as seriously. Courts and regulatory bodies are mindful of the responsibilities of educators and the paramount obligation of child safety.

Teacher ‘X’

In a recent case before the Fair Work Commission, Teacher X challenged the termination of his employment where he was found to have failed to observe the professional boundaries between a teacher and a student, having “crossed the line” in both his physical contact with students and his online communications.

Various activities were found by the Commission to constitute misconduct and to have been a valid reason for dismissal.

Teacher X posted one tweet of a sexual nature on his personal account, and an identifiable link was able to be made between that account and his workplace.

He downloaded and viewed pornographic material on his school laptop during school holidays, but failed to remove the material upon his return to school, risking students inadvertently accessing the material.

He emailed students in an overly familiar manner, indicating that he was their “friend”, used emojis, mentioned that he would miss a student on school holidays, called another student “big guy”, thanked a student for their support, and told a student it was a privilege to be their “friend and mentor”. The Court dismissed his explanation that he was only communicating in a way that was relatable, finding that these were unprofessional and a breach of professional boundaries.

Teacher X was criticised by the Commission for his lack of insight into his behaviour, particularly his comprehension of the Child Safe Standards, his school’s code of conduct, and the basis on which he was provided the laptop.

Members alleged to have crossed professional boundaries online may find themselves subject to misconduct or disciplinary procedures. If you find yourself subject to an investigation, you should contact the AEU. Below is some advice about your rights and obligations.

Recommended reading

Even with the best of intentions, members can find themselves facing misconduct allegations. To avoid this, members should make themselves aware of the Child Safe Standards and applicable laws governing their employment. You should also regularly review your employer’s child safe standards policy and code of conduct, online and electronic communication policy, and any student wellbeing policies.

Minimising your risk 

Only use communications platforms approved by your employer. Don’t communicate through private social media accounts or other online channels, chat rooms or gaming platforms without your employer’s explicit permission.

Avoid private communications with students. Don’t message from your personal phone unless it is approved and there is a valid educational context.

Limit communications to ordinary school hours. Don’t engage late at night, on weekends or during holidays.

Maintain a professional tone. Don’t engage using ‘relatable’ language or in an overly familiar manner.

Seek advice from your manager regarding any concerns.

Avoid ‘counselling’ conversations unless this is specifically part of your role (i.e. you are a trained counsellor) and instead refer these to the relevant person.

Be mindful when using video-conferencing. Create a professional environment and assist students to find an open space where they can be supervised.

Talk to the union

If the conduct alleged against you has been referred to a regulator such as the Commission for Children and Young People, the Victorian Institute of Teaching, or the police – or you think it could be – seek advice from the union prior to responding or attending any meetings.

The answers you give to an employer, even in a confidential context, have the potential to be used against you. Talk to us about what legal assistance is available.

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