A new Missouri law, known as the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, is designed primarily to protect children against sexual abuse from teachers and other education professionals, including those who might have been previously charged with abuse at a former district. The practice, known as "passing the trash," occurs when an educator is fired or resigns from one school district and winds up being hired at another district without the new district having knowledge of the alleged sexual abuse.
And while the law mostly focuses on physical misconduct, there is also a provision that would require districts to "develop a written policy concerning teacher-student communication and employee-student communications...including social networking sites." The law states that "No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a work-related Internet site unless such site is available to school administrators and parents," and further requires that "No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a nonwork-related Internet site which allows exclusive access with a current or former student."
Bans private chats
What this means is that it would not be legal for a student and teacher to have a conversation with direct messaging or chat. In theory, the communications would be OK if they took place on a publicly accessible page. But there are times when it is legitimate or even necessary for communications to take place in a private or semi-private manner.
I can envision cases where a student might want to use Facebook to chat with a teacher about some very personal issues, possibly including sexual abuse by a parent. There could be cases where students might want to reach out to teachers to talk about bullying incidents or perhaps sexual harassment from other students or other teachers.
On her blog, Missouri middle school teacher Randy Turner wrote, "Each year, I receive at least a dozen Facebook messages from high school students who are about to go through their first real job interview, looking for tips and wanting ways to make their resumes more effective. These are not things they are going to be willing to put on the wall for all to see." She added that "hundreds of teachers across the state who have effectively used Facebook and other social networking sites to communicate with students, and I am one of those, will have to trash years worth of work."
Tony Rothert, the legal director from ACLU or Eastern Missouri was quoted by the Huffington Post as saying, "I think that reasonable teachers are going to be afraid to use Facebook or Twitter at all, or anything that allows for requiring mutual consent before you can see what's posted."
Bill's author weighs-in
In an interview with CBS News and CNET (scroll down to listen to podcast), the bill's author, Missouri State Sen. Jane Cunningham said that nationally, "sexual misconduct between educators in our pubic schools and students was at least six times more prevalent than the priesthood scandal." She added that "Missouri was the 11th worst state in the nation for teachers losing their license for sexual misconduct."
Cunningham said "we did find that the access via the new electronic media, that new access became a pathway to future sexual misconduct." The one example of sexual exploitation she gave during the interview focused on texting. "During the work on the bill, there was a case in which a math teacher had an ongoing sexual relationship with a young lady about 14 or 15 years old. During the discovery of that case we found 700 text messages. They were all private, they were all hidden from school personnel and parents and I guarantee you they were not about algebra." She said that they "also found Facebook pages that one of our investigative reporters in in Kansas City found with pictures of second-graders and their teachers with a picture right next to it being a very raunchy graphic keg party."
The senator emphasized that the bill applies only to private communications and pointed out that the provision regarding former students only applies to youth under 18 years old.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives some of its funding from Facebook and other social media companies.
Click below for the full interview with Senator Cunningham.
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