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May 14, 2018

School system finally, carefully joins Facebook

Photo/Cassandra Brown
School officials will use Facebook to “engage with our families and the community more,” said Tara Helkowski, the system’s public information officer.
An organization thinking about whether to do more social media really shouldn’t go there if they don’t have a thick skin
— James Toscano, social media scholar
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Staff Journalist
Fauquier’s public school system finally has joined Facebook to communicate with parents, students and interested citizens.

Administrators last month softly launched an official Facebook page to “engage with our families and the community more,” said Tara Helkowski, the school system’s public information officer.

“The hope is that people are talking about what’s going on in the schools. Also, building that trust with our parents and community,” Ms. Helkowski added.

She will monitor the page, post quick information on school events, announcements and award winners as well as videos and other items on Facebook.

“I would hate for it to turn into exactly the same thing we are doing through the news releases,” Ms. Helkowski said. “We are really being mindful of who is the target audience and what do they need and are looking for.”

As of early Monday morning, 212 Facebook users had “liked” the school system page, which will be used mainly to disseminate information quickly. The school system plans an official launch in the fall.

In a January 2018 study, the Pew Research Center found that 68 percent of adults in the United States use Facebook.

But, Fauquier school administrators have waited 14 years and have examined the issues carefully before joining.

“The division has stakeholders they want to reach out to,” school Technology Director Louis McDonald said. “They feel Facebook is the dominant place for that. We weighed the risk of what it means to do this with the value, and now the value outweighs the risk.”

The challenges include monitoring the page for inappropriate content and comments, according to Mr. McDonald.

Facebook uses can comment under school system posts, but they will not be able to post separate items on the page.

Although the Facebook page will not get monitored 24/7, Ms. Helkowski receives email notifications when comments get posted. Citizens can post comments in real time, and Ms. Helkowski will review them several times a day.

The school system will remove or censor comments on a “case by case basis,” based on its terms and conditions.

“First and foremost, we have to protect our students,” said Ms. Helkowski. “If there are things that are identifiable info about students, we can’t have that. We don’t want the reputation of our staff members to be ruined through this.”

However, she admits, “It’s time to have a thick skin in terms of some of the things.

“Occasionally we will answer questions or disputes that are made out there. But sometimes, it will work itself out and folks will jump on and help each other.”

Mr. McDonald believes using Facebook and other social media, “Gives the school a more humanistic view to people as opposed to very staunch and formal process we had in the past.”

“The average citizen does not organize their life in a way that showing up to a public meeting is possible. Turnout it notoriously poor,” said James Toscano, a social media scholar and former consultant. “Cities and school districts can extend their reach into the community by employing social media.”

Dr. Toscano conducted his doctoral research at Northeastern University in 2015 on how governments, schools and other organizations use social media.

“I would encourage no censorship of opinions,” said Dr. Toscano. “If they are willing to tolerate a controversial opinion at a board of education or town meeting, then they should have the same tolerance for those comments online.

“An organization thinking about whether to do more social media really shouldn’t go there if they don’t have a thick skin,” he added.

Over the summer administrators and Ms. Helkowski will continue to work on a plan and process for the Facebook page.

The school system in 2009 joined Twitter, but didn’t start posting regularly until 2013.

In 2013, Fauquier’s school system implemented the “Bring Your Own Device” program that allowed students to bring electronic devices to school for the first time.

Since that time, teachers advocated that the school system allow students to access Twitter on school WiFi.

“Twitter became an instructional tool,” Mr. McDonald said. “We kept getting requests from staff to use Twitter. They were using it very effective as a communication tool and collaboration between students.

“I have not seen much of an avocation for Facebook,” he said.

While Facebook remains blocked to students using the school system’s WiFi networks, Mr. McDonald said administrators may consider offering access to students in the future.

Other local government agencies that use social media include:

• Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office.

• Warrenton Police Department.

• Fauquier County Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management.

• Town of Warrenton Health, Parks and Recreation Department.

• Warrenton Aquatic and Recreation Facility (WARF).

• Fauquier County Parks and Recreation.

• Town of Remington.

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