Missouri Teachers Seek Clarity on New Law Prohibiting Them From "Friending" Students

Some teachers are giving the new law a big thumbs down.
Some teachers are giving the new law a big thumbs down.
Under a new Missouri law, teachers who "friend" a current or former student on Facebook could soon run afoul of state codes.

Senate Bill 54 first raised flags back in June when a teacher urged its veto after he used Facebook to help locate students missing following the devastating tornado in his hometown of Joplin. His protest, though, fell on deaf ears as Governor Jay Nixon sign the bill into law July 14.

Officially named the "Amy Hestir Student Protection Act" after a girl who was sexually violated by her teacher, most of SB 54 aims at culling sexual predators from school faculties. But it's the provision dealing with social media that's generating the most inquiries into the Missouri State Teachers Association.

"Ironically, we're getting a lot of questions about it on our Facebook page," MSTA's communications director, Todd Fuller, tells Daily RFT.

The new law states that teachers "cannot 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." The legislation also bans teachers from using "a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student."

That description would seem to make it illegal for teachers to interact with students via Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media. But the new law also leaves it up to individual districts to set up a specific written policy regarding appropriate teacher-student communication in social networking circles. And therein lies the rub, with the MSTA concerned that standards for social-media interaction will vary widely between districts.

"The definitions in the bill are pretty vague," says Fuller. "Does it mean that a teacher from a small town who has nephews and nieces in a class, and is also friends with them on Facebook, is in violation? Or what about a teacher who has a group Facebook page for his or her class? Beyond Facebook, the law also seems to impact third-party sites like Blackboard or Virtual Classroom where teachers interact with students."

As a result, the teachers' association is now asking its 44,000 members to tell it how they use social media to interact with students and how they'd rewrite the law to provide for the safe use of the technology. MSTA then hopes to take that information to legislators in the fall.

"We didn't oppose the bill as a whole because there are good parts in it that protect children," says Fuller. "But by the same token, we're hoping state legislators will be open to hearing our concerns and allowing us a safe platform for communicating with students." 
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