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Teachers can’t ‘friend’ students in Missouri

New law aimed at inappropriate contact

- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2011

Missouri students will soon be unfriended by their teachers.

Under a new law that takes effect Aug. 28, teachers in the Show-Me State will no longer be able to "friend" students on popular social networking sites like Facebook. Instructors can still set up public pages or groups to post homework assignments or share resources, but individual friendships or communication will be illegal.

Missouri is the first state in the nation to pass such a law, which was signed into law by Gov. Jay Nixon last month. Dubbed the "Amy Hestir Student Protection Act," it was inspired by a Missouri student who was molested and assaulted by a junior high school teacher. The bulk of the bill, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Jane Cunningham, deals with preventing sexual abuse of students, more thorough background checks of teachers and district employees and banning registered sex offenders from serving on local school boards.

While agreeing that students need the best possible protections from sexual abuse, critics believe the law will hamstring teachers who want to communicate with students on their 21st century cyberturf.

"The problem is, there is a misunderstanding and misinterpretation of these types of laws and guidelines that make it very hard for a teacher to know what they can or cannot do in the classroom," said William Stites, director of technology for the Montclair Kimberly Academy in New Jersey and former third-grade teacher. Mr. Stites is also blogger in chief at edSocialMedia.com, which advocates the use of Facebook, Twitter and other technological tools in education.

"They're going to spend all of this time letting people know what they can and can't do, and the technology is going to go right past the law."

The Missouri State Teachers Association vows to fight the social media provisions of the law in the next legislative session, said spokesman Todd Fuller. But the union may face an uphill battle — the bill passed unanimously in the Missouri Senate and was approved with strong bipartisan support in the House. Proponents sold the bill as being necessary to protect students from sexual predators, and the language dealing with social media and websites is confined to three lines near the end of the bill.

The law comes at a time when an increasing number of teachers are relying on Facebook and other online tools to communicate with their students, said Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, which represents more than 100,000 educators nationwide and supports the use of technology in the classroom.

Among other things, Mr. Knezek said many teachers hold "virtual office hours" on Facebook, providing students with homework help for a few hours in the evening or on weekends. Other instructors post news articles or other relevant material on students' Facebook pages, he said.

"It's really bothersome to think that you're taking modern communication and interaction and forbidding teachers from participating in that," Mr. Knezek said. "You're causing schools to be one-dimensional."

Critics of the law admit that there are teachers with bad intentions who may abuse Facebook, Twitter or other sites in dealing with their students. But using those cases as the basis for such a far-reaching law, they argue, is short-sighted.

Mr. Fuller said most Missouri school districts already have policies in place to deal with teacher-student interactions outside the classroom. Leaving those decisions in the hands of local leaders, he added, is the best way to address potential problems.

Proponents counter that teachers are still free to communicate with students via email, since the law only mentions "websites." But for many of today's students, email could soon join the abacus and typewriter on the technological scrap heap.

"Students don't answer email anymore. Email is not cool," Mr. Fuller said, relaying comments he hears regularly from Missouri teachers. "We have trouble reaching our students through mediums that they feel are ancient."

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