District officials to propose changing policy to allow for two-way communication

Have you ever tried to comment on the Sarasota County Schools Facebook page and wondered where your comment went?

Unless you wrote a simple “Congratulations” or created a brief sentence, you probably noticed that your comment never appeared on the school district’s main Facebook page.

That was intentional. In fact, the district’s current social media policy has effectively hidden most comments on its Facebook page, according to a presentation scheduled for next week’s School Board workshop.

Words automatically hidden from the district’s Facebook page include articles like “the” and “a" and pronouns like “he,” “we” and “her." In general, it would be difficult to write any complete sentence without using one of those words.

The School Board's written policy states: "District accounts are intended as one-way communication tools to provide information to the community." The policy was created in 2014 but may have been amended since then, a spokeswoman for the district said.

On Monday, officials with the district's communications department will propose that the School Board change the policy to allow for two-way communication between constituents and the school district on its social media page. 

"Our recommendation is that we allow those two-way conversations to be had. We have staff now able to really monitor and manage all of our social media efforts," district spokeswoman Tracey Beeker said. "Where there might have been a barrier perhaps earlier, there is no longer a barrier today."

In the past, commenters were not notified that their comments would be hidden from the the page, Beeker said. But the district has tried to reach out to parents with concerns or to answer any questions that are posed on the page, even if they are hidden from public view.

"The majority of our conversations and the comments that people have are overwhelmingly positive," Beeker said. "For those particular ones that are not, we try our best right now to reach out to those people individually. In the spirit of transparency, we should be reaching out to them through the same media, so everyone has the same opportunity to see the response."

School Board attorney Art Hardy said the district was within its rights to choose to have a one-way communication policy, one in which the district could communicate with constituents but constituents could not communicate back.

"What you can't do is consciously pick and choose which ones you like and delete other ones and that certainly is not what that list is designed to do," Hardy said. "That list is not just negative words, they are the most common words. It's trying to not differentiate based on content."

What doesn't make it

An example shown in the presentation proves just how many comments do not make it to the school district’s final Facebook page.

On Aug. 12, the district’s official Facebook page posted a link to the school bus routes. The post has 71 comments, but the majority of those that appear to the public are simply Facebook users tagging someone else in the comments. Only a few wrote substantive comments and many of those were negative.

“Worst system ever!” wrote Nicholas Purvis.

“Very frustrated: No match was found,” said Terri Murray Hays.

Another had a suggestion for how parents could better find their child’s bus route.

“I found it helpful to start typing in the address very slowwwly (sic). It helped with the population of addresses,” wrote Deborah Day Gerack.

A photo from the School Board’s presentation indicates even more hidden comments that did not make it to the public eye because of the district’s social media policy. Many of the comments shown in the presentation were parents expressing specific concerns about their child’s bus route.

“Did you finally fix 6th and Tuttle? The kids all stand out in the road and someone is eventually going to get hit,” wrote Tracy Clarenson, according to the presentation. That comment was never shown publicly on the school’s Facebook page.

“This has my son walking from his normal bus stop 1.5 miles to the other side of our neighborhood PAST at least 1 other bus stop!!! I have sent multiple emails inquiring about this issue!” wrote Jamie Black. His comment also never made it to the district's public-facing Facebook page.

Crafting a positive perception of the school district online has been an issue in the past. Last year, the Herald-Tribune found that the district's public relations firm, led by Candice McElyea, was connected to comments that were being left on Herald-Tribune stories under other names but linked to McElyea's IP address. Those comments generally included positive statements about the school district and Superintendent Todd Bowden on stories about controversial topics. McElyea was asked to resign following the report.

After McElyea's departure, the district hired Beeker as its communications director last December.

In the last two years, the school district has upped its online presence and communication with the public through initiatives like digital town halls, where parents can ask questions online directly of the district's top administrators and community partners.

But Beeker wants to see that concept expanded to the district's social media pages.

"First and foremost, I think we have an obligation to inform the public on the happenings being placed within the district," Beeker said. "At the same time, we also want people to have a positive brand experience, with our teachers, with our staff, with our students and all the activities taking place throughout the district and the best way to showcase that positivity is to allow those types of comments to occur online."