WESTFIELD, NJ — The Westfield school board received annual training on ethics for board members during its meeting Tuesday night.
Field Service Representative Gwen Thornton from the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) held a training workshop on board member responsibilities and expectations, including best practices for social media and electronic communication usage.
“Social media seems to be what the school ethics commission is spending a huge part of its time talking about,” Thornton said. “One of the things we’re spending a whole lot of time talking about to board members is social media as well.”
Thornton said social media can have both positive and negative impacts on both students and adults in the district. She said social media is effectively used to publicize positive events in the district and student achievements, but that other uses can be detrimental.
“It can be a wonderful tool, but when used inappropriately, it could cause a lot of damage,” she said. “And you don’t want to subject yourself, the board, the district to that.”
Thornton referenced multiple cases where board members faced consequences for actions depicted on social media.
A recent case she discussed involved a board member’s blog posts. The School Ethics Commission, the body that oversees ethics of board members, recommended a six-month suspension.
“This was a case where a board member who started a blog prior to election to the board, but then continued it, and went on to attack a particular staff member around the time of negotiations,” Thornton explained. “She was suspended for six months.”
Thornton encouraged the board to remain professional and set a positive example for students and the community. Not doing so landed South Orange-Maplewood school board member in trouble in October 2019.
School board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad was suspended for thirty days after police dashcam video showed her presenting herself as a board member, indicating her relationship to a local official, and using a racial insult toward the South Orange Police Chief. TAPinto SOMA reported that the video was leaked to one of their writers.
“Everybody these days has a camera. Everybody’s recording,” Thornton said. “You just need to be conscious of that, when you’re out and about, that there’s always that potential.”
“Your behavior does have an impact on those in your district,” she added. “Modeling for both your students and staff high levels of professionalism, I think, is always a key to success in every school district.”
Prior to the workshop, the board approved its policy on the use of electronic communications and social networks by board members and the administration.
“Electronic communication among Board members and the administration is an efficient and convenient way to exchange information but should not be used to deliberate issues that are properly discussed only in a public meeting,” the policy reads in part.