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07 September 2011

Stouffer: Lawmakers and Courts Send an Indirect Message on Facebook

There has been a lot of talk about a new law in Missouri. This bill, aimed at student safety, has become the centerpiece of conversations between students, teachers, and parents.

When the Missouri General Assembly passed and the governor signed Senate Bill 54, most folks were happy to see an end to a common practice. For years, teachers who got into trouble in one district could move onto another without their past becoming known. If the same situation would arise, the teacher would move on, again, without any question from a different district.

This is what prompted the “Amy Hestir Student Protection Act.”

Simply put, the new law keeps tabs on teachers who are accused of inappropriate behavior, with the goal of letting other districts know this person has been in trouble for wrongful actions. The days of looking the other way are expected to come to an end, under the new law.

However, there is another aspect of the law that has many folks talking. The legislation states that teachers are not 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 includes private messages sent via popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

In the days prior to SB 54 becoming law (Aug. 28), a judge blocked this portion of the bill from taking effect. Several groups have questioned the merit of the proposal and have worked to keep it from becoming law — I am disappointed they did not provide such input while the law was being formed. This issue has gathered so much attention that the governor has extended his call for special session.

Proponents of the law argue limiting “off campus” contact between teachers and students is a good idea. The act reduces the opportunity of inappropriate communication from occurring between students and teachers. Many school districts or individual teachers and administrators already limit such activities to avoid issues from arising.

Opponents argue limiting electronic communication is behind the times and part of “nanny-state” efforts to protect children en lieu of good parenting. Some argue Facebook and other forms of social media are the new norm of communication and that certain circumstances merit their use. This includes normal conversations between relatives who happen to be students and teachers, youth pastors communicating with their students, or extra-curricular advisors or coaches needing to keep in touch with members or athletes. New media also allows students and teachers to connect after natural disasters (such as the Joplin tornado) or illness strike.

My hope is that we can find a better way to help teachers and students. I am confident that my colleagues in the Legislature will work together and make this an even better piece of legislation. This would allow us to continue to ensure Missouri’s classrooms are the safe, world-class learning environments they need to be.

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