English teacher Eleanor Terry started a Facebook page last fall for the High School for Telecommunication Arts and Technology in Brooklyn. She uses it for the school's college office to remind seniors about things like application deadlines. The seniors use it to stay in touch with each other.
"There was a student who got into the University of Chicago," she says, "and the way we found out about it was that they scanned their acceptance letter and then tagged us in it."
Most of the school's 320 seniors have friended the Facebook page, but Terry disables the mechanism that allows her to see their individual profiles.
"So that I'm not seeing their ... personal pictures from their weekend," she says.
Terry and her colleagues came up with that approach on their own, based on what they thought was appropriate. Now, guidelines the city issued this spring make that explicit: Teachers cannot friend or follow their students in open forums like Facebook or Twitter, but they can have professional accounts and pages for students to follow, such as Terry's college office.
The New York City Department of Education issued its first guidelines for how teachers should navigate social media following a rise in the number of complaints involving school employees who inappropriately contact students through Facebook, texting and email.
Terry's principal, Philip Weinberg, calls the guidelines common sense.
"As an old English teacher, even the language of that kind of interaction is problematic," he says. "We know that we're not our students' friends as much as we love them and care about them in genuine ways. We need to establish specific boundaries about the kinds of interactions we have with young people."
Now that everyone is crossing paths through social media, school districts around the country are trying to regulate these interactions. New York copied the approach taken by Los Angeles. Other districts have gone much further to restrict teachers, according to Scott McLeod, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky. He says districts don't need extra policies for social media because they already have discipline codes.
"On the one hand, the people seem to be encouraging educators to use social media with students," says McLeod, who teaches law and technology to aspiring school leaders. "Yet they're putting such tight confines on it that I think what they going to find is that most educators won't take them up on it."
For example, New York requires principals to sign off on any social media page for a school, and students must get family consent to participate. But teachers can still communicate directly with students by phone.
At the High School for Telecommunication Arts and Technology, some teachers say the new guidelines will help clear up any ambiguities — and students agree. Senior Jennifer Tufino, 17, shakes her head when asked if she would ever friend a teacher.
"I think that's kind of weird," she says.
But Tufino and her classmate, 18-year-old Danny Perez, say it's nice that teachers can use social media for classwork and staying in touch.
"Because then they're more accessible to you," Tufino says.
"You feel more confident asking for help — not just schoolwise but more personal," Perez says. "You have an issue, you could talk to them."
New York City says it's trying to clarify these interactions to protect kids and teachers. And if the sometimes blurry line does get crossed, the city says it will rely on its existing discipline code. The city is currently moving to fire several teachers who are accused of having inappropriate sexual contact with students; those cases did not involve social media.