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Missouri's Facebook law only applies to private messages, senator says

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sen. Jane Cunningham
Many Missouri teachers have unfriended their students on Facebook in recent weeks to comply with a new law concerning the use of electronic communication and social media. Turns out, according to the state senator who wrote the legislation, they didn't have to.

Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, said many educators are misinterpreting a section of the law, which says "no teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a non work-related Internet site which allows exclusive access with a current or former student." The law, Missouri Senate Bill 54, or the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, goes into effect Aug. 28 and requires school districts to adopt policies by Jan. 1 regarding teacher-student communication using electronic media and social networking.

Communication on Facebook between teachers and students is not prohibited by the law, Cunningham said. Teachers are also allowed to keep their personal pages and can use Facebook and other social media as they always have but cannot engage in private messaging with students. The law covers all students, current and former, until they turn 19 or graduate.

"It's not the friending that's the problem, it's the hidden communication," Cunningham said. "The law still allows all the communication that is going on now; it just makes sure that it's not hidden from third parties like parents and school personnel."

According to the Associated Press, the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri is calling the law confusing and saying it is concerned about freedom of speech and may file an injunction against the legislation.

Tony Rothert, the ACLU's legal director, said the law is decimating protected speech in an effort to stop a small amount of dangerous speech.

Cunningham takes the position that the law is designed only to protect students and deals with inappropriate private communication.

"When people say you shouldn't inhibit any kind of communication between a teacher and a student, we need to remember we are dealing with minor children in a situation where the teacher is the authority figure and has a lot of influence over that child," she said.

Since school districts will be making their own policies, Cunningham said, there may be variations on what is allowed when it comes to teacher-student communication using texting, email and social media, but it will be up to the district.

Jackson School District superintendent Dr. Rita Fisher said the district will wait for the Missouri School Boards' Association to come out with a policy it can adopt before making any changes to conduct policies. The association's website says the policy implications of the law are being studied and that it is developing sample policies.

"There's still a lot of questions surrounding it, and not everybody is on the same page yet. That's where our faculty will have to be before we do anything with it," Fisher said.

The district has not had any policies on social media in place before.

Cunningham said many reports of sexual abuse by teachers over the years in Missouri started with innocent, hidden communication, even for the person the law is named after, Amy Hestir Davis, who was abused by a teacher when she was in junior high.

Although when Hestir was abused electronic communication wasn't available as it is now, Cunningham said, the situation came about partly because the teacher was passing notes to the teenager, which is considered private communication.

The law also requires school districts to report any allegations of sexual misconduct by a teacher or employee to the Missouri Social Services Children's Division within 24 hours and requires districts to adopt a policy that says the district may provide information on former employees to public schools, prohibits registered sex offenders from serving on school boards, requires the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to conduct annual background checks on certified teachers and strengthens criminal background checks for school bus drivers.

While the bill was being discussed by legislators, no one caught that the language was not made specific enough to exclude teachers who may have someone in their family as a student. Cunningham said the failure to exclude family members from being able to privately communicate is a glitch that will be fixed with an amendment when the legislature convenes in January.



Pertinent address:

614 E. Adams St., Jackson, MO

Jefferson City, MO

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When will our slaphead state legislators quit wasting time and tax money on nonsense like this, and actually pretend they were elected to accomplish something meaningful? With all the real world problems people are facing today, this is what they're wanking around with? It's an absolute disgrace.

-- Posted by heye1967 on Sun, Aug 14, 2011, at 5:33 PM

Right on heye1967

Who cares if a teacher has to unfriend someone from Facebook? OMG what is this world coming to! Maybe this will allow the teachers more time to teach, instead of posting on their wall what they had for lunch that day.

-- Posted by gman on Sun, Aug 14, 2011, at 6:23 PM

Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, said many educators are misinterpreting a section of the law,

They aren't misinterpreting the law, Sen. Cunningham misworded it.

-- Posted by bam-bam on Sun, Aug 14, 2011, at 7:34 PM

heye1967, Sorry you feel sexual misconduct is a waste of time.

There is no reason a teacher should have a student as a facebook buddy, period!

-- Posted by Dick888 on Mon, Aug 15, 2011, at 12:39 AM

Agreed, Tonyr999. There are other ways for teachers to communicate homework concerns, help, assignments, etc.

-- Posted by jbpv on Mon, Aug 15, 2011, at 7:46 AM

My daughter's best friend's mother is a teacher...the way the law is stated means that my daughter cannot send a message to her friends mom. Even though my daughter has never had her as a teacher and never will. That is what makes this law ridiculous. If parents were more active in their children's online lives THIS WOULD NOT BE AN ISSUE!!!

-- Posted by mom4 on Mon, Aug 15, 2011, at 11:56 AM

This is the same Senator Jane, who, a few months ago, wanted to end child labor laws in Missouri! Her concern about student/teacher relationships is suspect. Her logic is flawed. I see more child abuse coming from parents and pseudo preachers here in the Ozarks. I think Senator Jane shares the Koch Brothers' views on public education-destroy it!

-- Posted by tkruzen@gmail.com on Mon, Aug 15, 2011, at 12:07 PM

She's grandstanding. She slapped this together and the end result is a poorly worded, unenforceable law. I agree that an adult should never have private communications with a minor without solid justification. I'm very hesitant in accepting a facebook friendship with any of my kids friends just because of the appropriateness. But legislating this adds no value to solving the bigger issues we have today. The cause of the sexual abuse was not the notes passed back and forth between teacher and student per se, unless the note was flirtatious. Perhaps instead of a shotgun approach which unfairly singles the teaching profession, a much more targeted law (making it a crime to solicit sex) between any adult and minor is the way to go. oh wait...isn't there already a law for that? Just sayin.

-- Posted by Beaker on Mon, Aug 15, 2011, at 11:11 PM

What a waste of my taxpaying money! This proves to me WE HAVE TO MUCH GOVERNMENT involvement! If a student and teacher wants to be friends WHO CARES! The teacher should have enough sense to know how far to go. NOT THE GOVERNMENT!!!

IDIOTIC is all I will say

-- Posted by Bman69 on Tue, Aug 16, 2011, at 7:46 AM

Bman69, I agree!!!

Good common sense will prevent unfortunate circumstances, and for those who are out to do harm, they will find a way regardless of the law. It is nothing short of ridiculous to continue to think teachers need "policing" when it comes to their relationships with students.

Sure, there are some perverts out there, but to act as if the majority of teachers cannot manage themselves by placeing restrictions on all of them is such an insult to the fine people out there who have chosen to educate our children for us.

It is a real shame that teachers can no longer use their own personal time to invest more fully in the lives of their students, especially for those students who have no one at home showing interest in them.

-- Posted by sayswho? on Tue, Aug 16, 2011, at 8:35 AM

It's just like any other law....it will not prevent those who would use it inappropriately from doing so. The law simply adds a layer of protection for the district by having a "policy" in place.

-- Posted by chocolatte on Tue, Aug 16, 2011, at 8:41 AM

I have to throw a word in here - the law does NOT make it illegal for teachers to do anything with regard to facebook. The law requires the school board to create policy which prohibits the private communication.

As a parent I totally agree that private communication between teachers (or any other non family adult) is problematic. But it is possible to set facebook settings so they are totally visible by everybody (parents, school administrators, even state senators who need assistance in coming in out of the rain).

-- Posted by one4kids on Thu, Aug 18, 2011, at 2:32 PM

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