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The “Missouri Facebook Law”: a new employee policy challenge for school districts

August 18, 2011
Missouri lawmakers passed the Amy Hestir Student Protection Law last month. The law was named for 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.
However, drawing the most attention is that schools are expected to draft policies in each school district to coincide with the new law. These policies are to detail how teachers may communicate with students through social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and even cell phone texting. Policies are to include very specific limits on teacher-student contact through social media websites and other contacts such as cell phone texting.
According to a Kansas City Star article, The ACLU is concerned that the language may be so restrictive that teachers would be forbidden to open an account on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.  Missouri State Senator Jane Cunningham (R-Chesterfield) said that 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 goes into effect August 28, 2011 and requires school districts to adopt policies by January 1, 2012 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.”
Tony Rothert, The ACLU’s legal director, said in a Southeast Missourian article that the law is “decimating protected speech”.  However, 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,” added Cunningham.
When asked, Todd Fuller, Director of Communications for The Missouri State Teachers Association states that he expects attempts will take place to amend or repeal this new law when The Missouri Legislature convenes again in January of 2012. Until then, Fuller stated that he expects all districts will comply with the current law and draft policies in their school districts in line with the guidelines of the new law until such time as it may be amended or repealed.
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