The Missouri Senate recently approved Senate Bill 54 the “Amy Hestir Student Protection Act” a law aimed at preventing schools from moving teachers facing misconduct allegations around from school to school without alerting parents.
Unfortunately, however, it contains some other more draconian provisions and social media takes some shrapnel. Of concern is that it bans teachers from friending students on any social networking site, limiting them to creating fan pages to which all students in a class may have access.
Like so many ham-handed legislative measures, it curbs speech and interferes with education in the name of saving the children.
One of the many stupid facets of this bill is that the victim for which the bill is named was sexually assaulted by a teacher 20 years ago, long before the advent of social networking.
Here’s the text of the portion pertaining to social networking:
“SECTION 162.069 – By January 1, 2012, every school district must develop a written policy concerning teacher-student communication and employee-student communications. Each policy must include appropriate oral and nonverbal personal communication, which may be combined with sexual harassment policies, and appropriate use of electronic media as described in the act, including social networking sites. Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student.”
Several things jump out at me as problematic:
- What defines a “work-related” website? Is a teacher’s blog about teaching a “work-related website to which administrators and parents are entitled to have complete access?
- If a teacher cannot have a “nonwork-related website” that allows exclusive access to a current or former student, that would seem to mean that any teacher who has an online business has to bar all students from being customers.
- The idea that a website must be available to administrators and the child’s guardian seems innocuous, but could ironically be problematic. What if a child is suffering from abuse at the hands of a parent and reaches out to a teacher for help? – Under this law, the teacher could be sanctioned for not including the abusive parent in the communication circle. This sort of thing isn’t uncommon; studies have shown the majority of teachers have run across students they suspect are being abused. Not only that, but like all other states Missouri mandates that teachers report suspected child abuse. Talk about a Catch-22.
- Including the phrase “current or former student” is extraordinarily broad and although the current interpretation by the legal staff working for the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) interprets it to no longer apply when a student graduates, it could certainly be read to be a permanent ban on contact with students.
- Another problem of this law, identified by the MSTA is that it makes any contact with a student via a personal email account, telephone, or mobile phone (which some teachers use for work) illegal.
- Presumably the ban on contact with “personal websites” even extends to, say, online gaming – it would be illegal for a teacher to play an online game like World of Warcraft because students could be playing it under pseudonyms and they could unknowingly have contact with them.
The MSTA has a write-up about the implications of the bill for educators, and they unfortunately need to be concerned because the bill is needlessly vague. State Sen. Jane Cunningham (the Republican who sponsored the bill) left the interpretation up to the school districts.
Cunningham, unsurprisingly, doesn’t Tweet or have a public Facebook preference.
If you’re in education, unfortunately there isn’t much clear direction on how to conduct yourself beyond refusing to have any contact whatsoever with students via any personal communication devices.