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26 August 2011

Rupp: Providing Our Kids With a Safe Learning Environment

Next week, on Sunday, Aug. 28, countless bills passed by General Assembly and signed by the governor will officially become Missouri law. One of those measures, SB 54, would have been included in this list. However, a recent injunction (lasts for 180 days) has been set into place to stop this law from going into effect. In addition, the governor announced that he expanded his call for special session and is asking the General Assembly to repeal certain provisions of SB 54. This bill is designed to protect our children from sexual assault in our public schools.

Studies have shown that Missouri is the 11th worst state in the country for educators losing their licenses because of sexual misconduct — this is absolutely intolerable. As parents, we need to feel confident that our children are being taught in safe places by responsible adults, and our children need to feel comfortable in their learning environments.

Senate Bill 54 creates the “Amy Hestir Student Protection Act,” with the aim of preventing the sexual abuse of children. Amy Hestir, whom the legislation is named for, is a Missouri woman who was continually molested and assaulted by her junior high school teacher while she was in school. The teacher was employed by several school districts before winning a “Teacher of the Year” award before retiring. The practice of sexually abusive teachers moving across the state is so common that the Missouri Department of Education has termed the phrase “Passing the Trash.”

Under Missouri’s current employment law, school districts are hesitant to share information regarding former employees for fear of lawsuits. As a result, teachers who engage in sexual abuse or misconduct with students are able to relocate from one district to another, with the new school district uninformed of the employee’s prior record.

Senate Bill 54 states that Missourians who apply for a teaching certificate would be required to complete a criminal background check, and in order to be hired, the applicant cannot have been listed under the state sexual offender registry or the state child abuse registry. School districts in Missouri would also be allowed to discuss information about their employees with other school districts. In addition, school districts would be liable for damages if they dismiss an employee or allow an employee to resign for reasons of sexual misconduct, and then fail to disclose those reasons in an information request from another school district.

The bill also states that by Jan. 1, 2012, every school district in Missouri must develop a written policy addressing teacher-student communication and employee-student communication. The policies shaped by school districts are required to include appropriate use of electronic media as described in the act, including social networking sites. Teachers aren’t allowed to 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.

This portion of the act, which will be addressed during special session, was intended to allow districts to set their own communication policies, and take a team approach to create a system that works best for students, parents, and school employees. Two school districts in our area, Francis Howell and Fort Zumwalt, already have policies in place. According to a report published by Suburban Journals, the Francis Howell Board of Education approved a revision to the district’s social media policy in January, which will take effect Sept. 1. The revision states that employees are “prohibited from using their personal accounts to communicate with students unless the employee and student are related.” Superintendent of the Fort Zumwalt School District, Bernard DuBray, said in the report, “Basically our policy says that our teachers cannot have private conversations on a social network site. You can have students on Facebook and other sites, but you don't have a private conversation on them.”

We must take the steps necessary to prevent our children from encountering inappropriate situations — we have to be aware that in our fast-paced world of communication, these issues will continue to arise, and we have to work together for the betterment of our children. If you have questions about your child and his or her well-being, don’t hesitate to speak with your child’s teachers or school district officials. As always, please feel free to contact me if I can answer any questions for you.

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