Mo. limits online contact between teachers, students

Can a state erect a dike against the flood of online interaction spurred by social-networking websites? Missouri is trying, with enactment of the "Amy Hestir Student Protection Act," named for a woman who testified that she was "manipulated into a sexual relationship with a teacher while in junior high," according to the Kansas City Star.

The new law requires school districts to be more vigilant in reporting allegations of sexual misconduct by teachers and staff. But other provisions of the law, due to take effect next year, are drawing sharp criticism from civil-liberties advocates, social-networking fans, and some teachers because of the way it attempts to constrain interactions that would not be accessible, say, to parents.

ZDNet's Emil Protalinski explains it this way:

The new law bans direct social networking contact between teachers and students in the hopes of setting more distinct boundaries on the relationships between the two. Section 162.069 of the bill explains the social networking part in a bit more detail:

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.

This implies that teachers will still be able to have a Facebook Page for interacting with students on a slightly more personal level, as long it’s still work-related. It’s the actual friending, messaging, and whatever other direct connection you can make on a social network that will not be allowed.

According to the Star's report, defenders of the law note that it doesn't bar all social-network contact:

Bill sponsors and state-level education groups, however, contend the language does allow teachers to have presences on the sites, to be friends with students and to send them messages — but only if those messages are public and readily visible to parents and school administrators.

“This law in no way stops communication with students,” said Sen. Jane Cunningham, the St. Louis County Republican who sponsored the bill. “In fact, we encourage social-media contact with students. We just require it to be appropriate, meaning it is not hidden from parents or from school personnel.”

But the Star also quotes Randy Turner, a Joplin, Mo., a communications-arts teacher and blogger, who is among the new law's critics. Turner argues that sites such as Facebook are an invaluable tool for teacher-student communication - including some kinds of perfectly innocent exchanges that students would not want shared with the world. The Star says:

"Right now, Facebook is the way they communicate,” Turner said of his students.

Sometimes those communications might be public posts about class work or clubs, he said, but other times students may have specific questions about homework, grades or problems with other students — issues better suited to a private conversation.

“If you have a student who’s having a problem in a particular class, they don’t want to tell the whole world they’re having a problem,” Turner explained.

Turner, who frequently writes about education issues on his blog, accused the legislation of “targeting classroom teachers.”

In practice, he said, the bill probably would confuse teachers about what is and isn’t allowable online conduct and stifle legitimate and valuable conversations with students.

Turner posted a video that he says offers a good description of the issues. You can view it below or by clicking here to view his blog entry.




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