Speaker of the House Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, didn't know he voted for it, but probably neither did many of Missouri's legislators, but with the stroke of a pen today, Gov. Jay Nixon outlawed communications between teachers and students via Facebook.
The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, sponsored by Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, which passed after both Missouri National Education Association and Missouri State Teachers Association rolled over and withdrew opposition, primarily addresses the process of "passing the trash" or allowing teachers to resign quietly from one school where they have been accused of sex or other improper activity with children and then sign on to teach in a different school district.
The bill was signed in spite of the positive effect that teachers and students being Facebook friends had on Joplin Schools' effort to locate students after the May 22 tornado.
It was also signed in spite of considerable evidence that social networking has been a positive force in education, and little or no evidence to the contrary.
The following news release has been posted on the governor's website:
Senate Bill 54, which protects children from sexual misconduct by a teacher. It requires any school employee who learns of reported sexual misconduct by a teacher or other school personnel to report that allegation to their superintendent and the Missouri Department of Social Services within 24 hours. School districts must immediately suspend any employee whom the Missouri Department of Social Services returns substantiated findings of allegations of sexual misconduct.
Additionally, this legislation requires all school districts to provide information about former employees to other public school districts, including findings of substantiated allegations of sexual misconduct. Districts may be held liable for failing to disclose information about an employee that was dismissed or resigned due to substantiated allegations.
This legislation also prohibits registered sex offenders from serving on local school boards; strengthens criminal background checks on school bus drivers; requires the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to conduct annual background checks of certified teachers; and requires school districts to adopt written policies by July 1, 2012 regarding teacher-student communication addressing electronic media, social networking and various other forms of communication.
(Printed below is my Daily Kos column on this topic.)
Gov. Jay Nixon delivered a slap in the face to Missouri teachers last week.
With a stroke of the pen, the governor signed the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, a bill that leaves the impression, an impression Sen. Cunningham has cultivated, that all teachers are perverts and that impressionable children must be protected from them.
Probably the only thing that kept the governor from signing the bill earlier was the May 22 Joplin Tornado. As the media pointed out, the Joplin School District was able to locate many of its students through the use of Facebook. This would not have been possible had Sen. Cunningham's bill already been law since it prohibits teachers and students from communicating through social networking sites.
The answer that Sen. Cunningham has for that is that another way can be found, and that there is nothing wrong with the law. Gov. Nixon, too, has indicated this is not an insurmountable problem.
The problem is the law itself. Sadly, the media, as might be expected, limited its examination of the issue to the tornado and did not even look into other aspects of teachers communicating with students through Facebook, or for that matter, other problems with the law itself.
There is no need for the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act. Mrs. Cunningham has exploited this poor woman, bringing her before House and Senate committees for the past few years, having her tell her story over and over. The sexual abuse that Amy Hestir went through was horrific. And the fact that the teacher who did this to her was able to move from one school district to another, what is referred to as "passing the trash" is inexcusable.
This act, however, is not the answer to the problem. The laws are already in place, something Sen. Cunningham never mentions. During the mid 1990s, the state enacted laws which toughened background checks on teachers, expedited the removal of criminal teachers from the classroom, and ensured that their teaching licenses would be revoked.
And those laws have worked. Ironically, the success of that legislation has been used as a weapon against teachers by Sen. Cunningham. Each year as she pushed this legislation, she cited an Associated Press survey which showed Missouri ranked high in the number of teachers whose licenses were revoked for sexual acts with students.
In other words, these people were already being removed from having contact with students and their licenses were being revoked. The law was working. The very success of the law served as ammunition for Sen. Cunningham, since the AP study was comparing Missouri to states that have taken no action to cut down on the minority of teachers who bring shame to the whole profession.
If the biggest problem is the "passing the trash" syndrome, and Sen. Cunningham indicated many times that it was, then all that was needed was specific sanctions against administrators and perhaps school boards that allow this to happen.
That was not enough for Sen. Cunningham, however. School districts will now have to spend a considerable amount of time reworking their policies to reflect her view that all teachers are hunters chasing underage prey around the school building.
And the hundreds of teachers across the state who have effectively used Facebook and other social networking sites to communicate with students, and I am one of those, will have to trash years worth of work, because all teachers are potential criminals in Sen. Cunningham's view.
The teachers I know who communicate with students through Facebook have a large number of parents as "friends" and most of the communication with students is done on the Facebook wall.
There are times, however, when students feel uncomfortable putting their thoughts in front of the whole world. As an example, I will mention a fourth quarter project I do with my eighth graders each year in which they learn how to properly fill out job applications, construct resumes, learn tips on job interviews, and go through mock interviews. Each year, I receive at least a dozen Facebook messages from high school students who are about to go through their first real job interview, looking for tips and wanting ways to make their resumes more effective. These are not things they are going to be willing to put on the wall for all to see. Under Sen. Cunningham's law, I will not be able to have these former students as Facebook friends until they have graduated from high school.
Can they contact me through other means? Sure. Will they? Experience indicates to me they will not. Facebook is their preferred means of communication at this point at least.
The ready answer some provide is to establish a school-friendly network that students can use. You can set it up, and yes, a few students will use it, but most will not. We have all seen it tried before.
After I wrote a few weeks ago about the Joplin tornado situation, I was immediately contacted by several businesses wanting to sell me school-friendly social networking sites. You can sell the adults on these; students will avoid them like the plague.
As far as I know, not one teacher who used social networking constructively has ever been called before one of Sen. Cunningham's hearings to testify on that portion of the bill.
The worst part about all of this is this bill would not have passed had the Missouri NEA and the Missouri State Teachers Association opposed it, as both organizations have in the past.
Both organizations supported the bill with NEA noting that it provided more due process for educators charged with wrongdoing.
What about due process for educators interested in educating? Doesn't that matter to the groups that are supposed to be looking out for our interests in Jefferson City?
All teachers who use Facebook to communicate with students are being penalized though there has not been any evidence presented that any of them have abused the privilege.
What will be next?
Legislators such as Sen. Cunningham have found the past few years that they have a good chance of passing laws that target three types of individuals- drunk drivers, sex offenders, and classroom teachers. The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act also includes a provision that sex offenders cannot run for school board. As far as I know, that has never been a problem in Missouri or any other state.
The signing of Senate Bill 54 continues the degrading of our profession and the only effect it will have is on teachers who have always followed the law and who would never dream of violating the sacred trust we have to teach children. We will eliminate students and former students from our Facebook lists.
For some students, that move could very well prevent them from confiding in a trusted adult friend who might be able to help them get through serious problems in their lives. For Joplin students, that could be dealing with the aftermath of losing their homes and having their lives uprooted on May 22. For others, it may be confiding in just the kind of horrific crime that the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act is supposedly designed to eliminate.
Because of this short-sighted bill, the next time students find themselves with problems they need to talk over with a trusted adult, there may be no one legally able to listen.
Coming next month, our book about the Joplin tornado- 5:41- Stories from the Joplin Tornado. Find out more about the book, the stories and photos that are included, and see the photo that was selected for the cover at this link.