This article appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of The Classroom Teacher.
You are sitting at your desk during planning time and get an email from a college friend, inviting you to a baby shower that weekend. You hit “reply to all” and respond that you would love to attend. Then someone else on the recipient list replies with a crude and inappropriate story about something that took place at a party you attended years ago in college. And you start to wonder… will my principal see this email? Could I be fired for this?
School districts have the right to review and retain email that is transmitted using their technology resources, including email and Internet, and most have adopted policies that specify that email shall not be considered private. Many districts have authorized specific staff members to monitor email and Internet usage to ensure appropriate use. You should assume that anything you say or do using school district email will potentially be seen by the administration.
Many districts allow limited personal use, but all communications should be professional and appropriate in tone.
Your district will have an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) that governs employee and student use of district email. You should read and comply with the AUP. Most school districts have adopted policies that specify that access to the district’s email and Internet shall be made available to employees primarily for instructional and administrative purposes. Limited personal use of district email is often permitted, so long as it imposes no tangible cost to the district, does not unduly burden the district’s technology resources, and has no adverse effect on an employee’s job performance or on a student’s academic performance. This means that it is probably acceptable to RSVP to the baby shower using your school district email, so long as you do not do it during instructional time or when you are otherwise responsible for supervising students. However, you should avoid engaging in any conversation that could be considered unprofessional. You are held to the same professional standards in your use of electronic media as for any other public conduct and if your communications violate the law or district policy or interfere with your ability to perform your job duties, you can be subject to disciplinary action for that communication. You can also be subject to disciplinary action if you use email to engage in prohibited harassment of other persons, including board members, vendors, contractors, volunteers or parents. Finally, you may be prohibited from using your position with the district to attempt to sell products or services. This means that you should not use your school district email to market any business or product that you may be associated with outside of school employment. Whether you may use your district email for professional association business or recruitment also depends upon the terms of the AUP, but any such policy would have to apply to all similar associations, such as associations of school administrators or school boards.
As a general rule, exercise your best professional judgment in favor of using a separate email account for personal email communications and limit any such communications to non-instructional time. If you receive an unsolicited personal email on your school district email account that is unprofessional or inappropriate, you should decline to respond to it from your school district email.
Never use school district email to produce or distribute any communication regarding a political candidate or election.
Texas Ethics Commission rules prohibit the use of internal mail systems to distribute hard copies of political advertising, which is defined as printed material supporting or opposing an election, such as a political campaign, a bond election or tax authorization election. While the rules do not specifically apply to emails, there is a rule that school district resources may not be used to support or oppose an election. You could run afoul of this prohibition by using existing school district machinery and property to promote or oppose an election. It is also not permissible for a school district employee to create or distribute political advertising while they are being paid by a school district. While you may (and should!) be actively involved in the political process, any communications related to elections must be sent using personal resources and during off-duty hours. If you happen to receive an email promoting or opposing an election, you should refrain from forwarding or replying to it.
Never communicate with an attorney, including TCTA attorneys, using school district email.
Communications with an attorney are protected by an attorney/client privilege. When you speak or correspond with an attorney, you can be confident that the attorney cannot be compelled to testify about your conversation and will protect your confidentiality. However, the attorney/client privilege can be waived. Because a school district has the right to review your email communications, there is no guarantee that any email sent to an attorney using school district email will remain confidential.