October 25, 2011 By Brian Heaton
A portion of a controversial Missouri law that restricted the ability of teachers to interact with students on social media and websites has been repealed.
Gov. Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon signed Senate Bill (SB) 1 last week, eliminating Section 162.069 of SB 54 — the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act — which prevented teachers from using a work-related website or social media platform to communicate with students unless parents and administrators also had access.
The provision in SB 54 was also applicable to educators’ non-work, private website and social network use. In his signing message regarding SB 1, Nixon said the law was an improvement “primarily through subtraction” and while not perfect, having teachers “conform to the unreasonable restrictions” of SB 54 was a “far worse result.”
The new law, like SB 54, mandates that school districts in Missouri have a written policy in place next year that outlines proper electronic communication between teachers and students, including social media. But instead of focusing on the substance of the communication between the parties, SB 1 takes aim at the use of the technology in general.
The individual school district policies must also be drafted in a way to “prevent” improper communication without infringing on appropriate messages, according to a statement by Nixon.
SB 54 had mandated that school districts in Missouri have written policies established by Jan. 1, 2012. SB 1 extends that deadline to March 1, 2012 and also requires each school district to determine whether its policy applies to “employees” or “staff members,” as the terms have different meanings under state law.
The Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) isn’t entirely sold on the language of SB 1, however. Todd Fuller, MSTA’s communications director, said the new law is to be too “open-ended” regarding electronic communication by teachers on their free time.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but our concern is still going to be what happens district to district,” Fuller maintained.
MSTA sued the state, Nixon, and Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, over the social networking restrictions in SB 54 earlier this year, claiming they would stifle the Constitutional rights of school district employees.
An injunction was granted on Aug. 26, just two days before SB 54 was set to go into effect. While the governor was removed from the proceedings due to a procedural issue, the lawsuit is still pending.
Fuller said MSTA hasn’t ended the lawsuit because they want the injunction in place to protect teachers while school districts draft their electronic communication policies. But he noted that MSTA has plans to work with Koster’s office to reach a resolution so the entire legal matter can be dropped at a future date.
Will the new law lead to further legal entanglements? Fuller said that some critics have argued that SB 1 puts the social media communication issue back in the districts’ laps and may ultimately end up creating more problems in the long run, particularly with 523 individual policies in the state.
But Fuller didn’t buy that criticism. He said that the Missouri School Boards’ Association (MSBA) writes policy that the majority of the school districts in the state adopt. So instead of waiting to see what policies are installed by the individual districts, MSTA has reached out to MSBA to work with them to craft policy that suitably addresses teacher interests.
He emphasized that MSTA’s concern is more focused on those individual districts that already have rules in place regarding teacher use of technology that the organization believes goes too far in its scope. Policy language that keeps teachers from interacting with students using social media in a positive way is an example of the type of policy MSTA would have in its crosshairs.
Fuller added that MSTA has heard from teachers who have said administrators have told them not to use Facebook at all, which “steps over the line” regarding the rights of teachers outside the classroom.
So while the organization hopes to avoid filing future lawsuits, it won’t shy away from it if the situation arises.
“We want to make clear to school districts throughout Missouri, if they have a policy that is overreaching, we’ll pursue any avenue we need to, to make sure teachers rights are protected in that particular district,” Fuller explained. “If we have to go to the length of suing an individual school district, we’ll do it.”
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