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Schools weigh risk, benefit of Facebook

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Like others, Mr. Stites sees big learning opportunities for students with Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and numerous other sites, some of which have been designed specifically with teachers in mind.

The bans on certain digital activity may be new, but the fears prompting them regularly arise with new technology, says Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. When movies first appeared, he notes, there were efforts to prevent children from going into theaters because of fears that they'd be harmed by both the content and the lack of fresh air.

"There are always some children who need protection, and most children don't need it," he says. "So how do we provide protection and yet keep things sufficiently open, flexible, available, and accessible so that we don't deprive children? It's unclear whether the law can really handle that sort of distinction."

Many of the new policies are sparked by real examples, however rare, of misconduct. The most egregious involve sexual predation (the concern that prompted the Missouri bill), such as the middle school teacher in Pine Hill, N.J., who is accused of conducting numerous inappropriate conversations with male students, in some cases on Facebook.

Other teachers simply use questionable judgment when posting to their Facebook or MySpace page. Several have had their jobs threatened for posting critical statements about their students, including one New York City teacher who, the day after a local sixth-grader drowned at the beach on a school trip, updated her Facebook status to read: "After today, I'm thinking the beach is a good trip for my class. I hate their guts."

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