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Collaboration & Social Networking | News

MO Outlaws Teacher Student Friends

Missouri Governor Jeremiah Nixon has signed Senate Bill 54 into law, making his the first state to place legal limits on interactions between teachers and students on social networking sites.

The law, also known as the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, "protects children from sexual misconduct by a teacher," according to information posted on the governor's Web site.

Section 162.069 of the bill says, in part "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. Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student. Former student is defined as any person who was at one time a student at the school at which the teacher is employed and who is eighteen years of age or less and who has not graduated."

Some Missouri teachers aren't happy with that part of the law.

Randy Turner, a former newspaper reporter and current English teacher at East Middle School in Joplin, MO, has been criticizing the law in his blog and the media.

Turner, who acknowledges in his blog that the primary purpose of the law is to stop districts from passing teachers accused of misconduct to other schools, says that the social networking part of the law is unnecessary and even potentially harmful to students.

"Teachers who follow the rules and would never consider crossing the line will remove the students from their friends list and also deprive the students of responsible adult role models who could help them through the kinds of difficult situations that teens face," Turner said. "If a teacher is going to violate every shred of decency and act inappropriately with a student, believe me, this bill is not going to stop him or her. The teacher will either break the law or will find another way to reach the goal. Proximity is a far more dangerous thing with this kind of teacher than social networking."

Leanna Johnson, a technology teacher at St. Paul Lutheran in Farmington, MO, is one of the teachers who is already striking former students from her friends list.

"I've been in Ed Tech for 10 years and I'm really going to miss knowing how my former students are doing while they're in high school," Johnson said. "Facebook was the way I kept up with them. Today I de-friended about 15 to 20 students that I won't have as much contact with unless they decide to friend me again when they graduate."

Johnson also thinks that the new law will add to her workload and that of her colleagues. She pointed out that administrators "will have to spend time re-examining policy we put in place already," and adds that now she'll have to share all login information for any technology that allows personal messaging with administrators.

"I don't mind doing that, but it's just one more thing to add to the work involved in teaching with technology," Johnson said.

Johnson and Turner both said that the tornado that hit Missouri in May also provided a good example of how social networks can be a useful resource for schools. During the disaster and its aftermath, Facebook became a resource for locating students and sharing information with members of school communities who had been displaced.

But Turner says there are other uses for social media that will also become illegal when the new law goes into effect August 28. He provided what he called a "partial list."

The Facebook page for Turner's journalism club will still be legal, but the messages sent from it about stories and the club's Web site will be illegal. Turner will also have to close the club's Twitter account since he will not be able to follow it or send private messages to students through it.

Turner says that while students will still be able to send him first drafts of writing assignments through email, many of his students only have email accounts to sign up for Facebook, and don't even remember their passwords.

"I have essay and short story contests each year which are judged by high school students who did well in the contests when they were in my eighth grade class," Turner said. "I send them the finalists on Facebook and they vote from them in order. I usually contact about a dozen and seven or eight of them judge the papers."

That will be illegal.

At the end of each year, Turner teaches his middle school students a unit on building effective resumes and job interview skills. Once those students are in high school and ready to enter the job market, they often ask him, through Facebook, to look over their resumes or provide other work-related advice.
Turner also says that he has had several students contact him through Facebook to provide letters for scholarships or job references.

"The top-flight kids will have no trouble adjusting to this," Turner said. "Many of the other students are at the point where they deal only through Facebook."
Johnson said that she just "got all the local schools on board for a reading blog." The project won't be illegal under the new law, but Johnson does worry that the law will have a chilling effect when it comes to dealing with administration.

As for her relationships with former students, Johnson is already beginning to say goodbye. "I will soon be de-friending former students that have moved on to high school," Johnson told her Facebook friends and Google+ circles yesterday. "Please don't take it personally."

Turner also says that in some instances the lost relationships Johnson is mourning may be the most important piece at stake.

"Without responsible adults for the students to confide in," Turner said, "this misguided section of the bill may actually allow something bad to happen to a student because the student cannot legally confide in a trusted adult through the medium he or she uses on a regular basis."

Governor Nixon and state Sen. Jane Cunningham, the bill's sponsor, did not respond to interview requests for this story.

The complete text of the law is available at senate.mo.gov. Turner's blog post criticizing the law can be found at rturner229.blogspot.com.

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is the multimedia editor for Campus Technology and THE Journal. He can be reached at jbolkan@1105media.com.

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