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15 August 2011

Dugger: Revisiting Senate Bill 54

“Education is not the means of showing people how to get what they want. Education is an exercise by means of which enough men, it is hoped, will learn to want what is worth having.”—Ronald Reagan

It seems as if just yesterday schools were letting out for summer vacation. However, parents, students, and teachers are once again getting ready to start a new school year. For many, this time of year is filled with the hustle and bustle of purchasing school supplies and as the back-to-school rush set in I thought it would be beneficial to highlight a piece of legislation that will take effect during this school year.

You may have recently heard about Senate Bill 54, otherwise known as the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act. Specifically, the bill’s changes to student-teacher relationships on social networking sites such as Facebook have been the subject matter of recent controversy. Before I address the concerns regarding student-teacher relationships on the internet I’d like to first highlight some of the “good” and less controversial parts of the bill.

First, SB 54 requires that any school employee who is a mandated reporter and the superintendent of the school district to forward any allegation of sexual misconduct by a teacher or other school employee reported by a student within 24 hours the Children’s Division of the Department of Social Services. This allows the Children’s Division to promptly investigate alleged cases of sexual misconduct and limits the role of the district to determining the employment of the accused employee rather than also determining if the allegations should be substantiated.

SB 54 also creates the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Abuse of Children. The task force will investigate the issue of sexual abuse of children until January 1, 2013. At which time they will provide a final report, as well as make policy suggestions to limit the number of incidents involving the sexual abuse of children.

The new law goes on to require school districts to provide teachers and employees with up-to-date information regarding the signs of and signals of sexual abuse and abusive relationships between children and adults. This information is to be included in the training programs of all Missouri school districts by July 2012 and should stress how to create a trustworthy atmosphere for students to report potential cases of abuse.

Lastly, SB 54 institutes the requirement that applicants for teaching certificates must first complete a background check before obtaining their certificate from the state. These certificates may be revoked for crimes involving sexual misconduct with a student while on school property or sexual misconduct of the second or third degree. SB 54 also prohibits a registered sex offender from being a candidate for any school board.

Recently, SB 54 has received some criticism for its requirement that every school district develop a written policy by January 1, 2012, concerning teacher-student communication and employee-student communications. Specifically, the use of text messaging and social networking sites for instructional and personal purposes. Primarily, the concerns stem from the parts of the bill that restrict a teacher’s use of a nonwork-related internet site, such as Facebook, which allows exclusive access with a current or former student under the age of 18. Some teachers, whose own children are student in the school district in which they teach, are concerned that the language of the bill might prohibit them from being Facebook friends with their own children.

As the legislation is written, this portion of SB 54 has good intentions. It attempts to prohibit teachers from communicating with students in a manner that excludes the surveillance of parents, guardians, and school administrators. However, due to the lack of specifics the General Assembly will have to revisit this portion of SB 54. During this process the constitutionality of limiting the ability of an individual to be Facebook friends with another individual must be discussed before attempting to define more clearly the dynamics of appropriate student-teacher relationships on Facebook and other forms of social networking.

A summary and full text of Senate Bill 54 can be obtained at the Missouri House of Representatives website, and using the bill information tab to access bill tracking.

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