Teachers who use websites and social media networks as a part of their teaching curriculum might want to rethink their approach.

A new law in Missouri places restrictions on the amount of contact teachers and students can have online, particularly as it deals with private messages and interaction. The law pertains to public school teachers and personnel only.

One section in SB 54 forbids teachers from communicating privately with a student using a non-work social media account or website. Any discussions conducted between a teacher and student online must be completely public and transparent.

For example, if a teacher has a personal Facebook account and “friends” a student, any message on that account to that student that’s not accessible publicly is a violation of state law. While a student, parent or teacher could theoretically all be “friends” in the social network, that fact alone doesn’t make communication between the student and teacher legal.

If the teacher sends the student a message privately on the system, or replies to a private note from a student — even if the inquiry is a practical one asking about a homework assignment or topic being discussed in class — that educator would be breaking the law if that message can’t be seen by everyone.

And that goes for all non-classroom educators as well, including principals and administrative personnel. According to the law, sponsored by Missouri Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, Missouri school districts are required to have a communication policy in place by Jan. 1, 2012, regarding teacher- and employee-student communications, including verbal and nonverbal speech and use of electronic media as it pertains to SB 54.

The bill, called the “Amy Hestir Student Protection Act,” is named for a woman who testified that she was manipulated into having a sexual relationship with an educator while in junior high school.

Cunningham said the legislation was drafted initially to make sure that a Missouri school district that fires an employee for sexual misconduct is liable for similar activity if the person is hired at another school district in the state and engages in similar behavior.

“One school district would let somebody go for sexual misconduct, they would sign a confidentiality agreement and even sometimes pay severance to keep everybody shut up — and that educator would go on to the next district and [the misconduct] would continue jumping from one district to another, passing the trash,” Cunningham explained.

History Prompted Restrictions

Cunningham said that when drafting the bill, researchers found that electronic media were a “pathway to inappropriate behavior.” The state senator cited an example of a math teacher and 14-year-old student in Jefferson City, Mo., who had a sexual relationship in which 700 text messages were found between the two of them.

In addition, Cunningham recalled that while drafting the bill, they found that an investigative reporter in Kansas City, Mo., had found Web pages from teachers with pictures of second-graders placed next to those featuring a “raunchy keg party.”

With the rise of social media, those types of incidents are becoming more common across the country. In New York City, for example, three teachers were fired in 2010 due to inappropriate contact on Facebook with students, including one teacher who had a sexual relationship with a student.

So while Cunningham wants to encourage communication between educators and students in the Show Me State, she said a line needed to be drawn in the sand to make sure that the contact isn’t inappropriate.

“In order for it to be appropriate [communication], it has to be available to parents and school personnel — that’s our dividing line,” Cunningham said. “Go for it, all kinds of communication; work-related Web page, work-related Facebook page, that’s all absolutely fine as long as it’s either in the public domain or if it’s available to parents, guardians or school personnel. That’s all. Otherwise, go for it.”

Chilling Effect Possible

Aside from social media’s mainstream popularity, teachers nationwide have used them as classroom tools. At Langley High School in McLean, Va., an English student honed her writing skills thanks to an exercise in brevity using Twitter’s 140-character posting limit. In addition, other teachers at the school have encouraged creating fictional Facebook profiles of literary figures to better understand the characters’ personalities.

When asked if the restrictions would have a chilling effect on educators in Missouri who use online forums — Twitter, Facebook and other social media applications in their instruction — Cunningham was steadfast that she doesn’t want to see the technology itself curbed. The transparency of what is said needs to be improved, she said.

“I think we still encourage the use of the tool, just don’t hide it from the parents and school personnel,” Cunningham said. “Don’t hide it from those that have a right and responsibility to that child’s welfare.”

But not everyone feels the law’s social media boundaries are a homerun. Randy Turner, a communications arts teacher from Joplin East Middle School, in Joplin, Mo., felt the restrictions may stunt helpful conversations between a teacher and a student.

In his personal blog, Turner recounted a conversation with a FoxNews.com reporter about the bill and said that while students may not have a problem posting an innocuous comment about the weather on their Facebook Wall — the location on a person’s Facebook profile where conversations can be seen publicly if the privacy function is turned off — they “might not be willing to reveal that he or she is having problems in a class.”

“As I have told others ... the only teachers who will be punished by this law are the ones who would never think of crossing the line with a student,” Turner wrote on his blog.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.