Missouri law on social media 'friending' causes concerns for teachers

JEFFERSON CITY — A new law barring Missouri school teachers from exchanging messages with students on social-media websites such as Facebook is drawing national attention — and criticism.

Lawmakers passed the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act in May, and Gov. Jay Nixon signed it into law last month.

Named for a Missouri woman who testified that she was manipulated into a sexual relationship with a teacher while in junior high, the wide-ranging bill contains several new provisions for reporting instances and allegations of sexual misconduct by teachers and school employees.

But what’s attracting renewed attention as students prepare to go back to school are provisions requiring districts to draft policies restricting how teachers may communicate with students. Among those provisions are very specific limits on teacher-student contact through social-media websites.

Some local and national media have interpreted the social-networking measures to mean teachers cannot become “friends” with students or contact them in any way on Facebook.

The ACLU, meanwhile, has raised concerns that the language may be so restrictive that teachers could not legally open an account on networking sites used by students.

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.”

Cunningham said private online messages represent a “pathway to sexual misconduct” that should be closed off to ensure children’s safety.

But since the bill’s passage, teachers, officials representing school districts and educators and legal groups have raised concerns that the law could limit legitimate communication, sow confusion among educators and perhaps even generate a legal challenge.

Randy Turner, an eighth-grade English teacher and prominent blogger from Joplin, Mo., said teachers communicate with students through internet sites because that’s the venue students are most comfortable using.

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

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