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New Missouri ‘Facebook bill’: Let school districts make their own rules

Lawmakers are considering a simplified version of Missouri’s so-called “Facebook law,” which was blocked last month by a state judge for being too broad in its restriction of social media contact between teachers and students.

The new version would drop controversial requirements, such as the ban on teachers using websites that enabled “exclusive access” between a staff member and a student. The provision would have prevented students and teachers from “friending” each other on Facebook, because communication between “friends” is private.

Instead, the revised bill would leave it up to districts to come up with policies to “prevent improper communications” between school employees and students, including on electronic media. It also gives districts an extended deadline – March 1, instead of Jan. 1 – to adopt the new policies.

The original social-media restrictions, which were a section of the broader Amy Hestir Student Protection Act targeting sexual abuse, were so broad and vague that they would have prevented even normal contact between a student and his or her own parent, if the parent was a teacher, free-speech advocates and educators say.

It’s an issue that will continue to play out nationwide as social media becomes increasingly embedded in people’s lives. Just recently, Dayton (Ohio) Public Schools set a policy restricting texting and social-media contact between teachers and students, including “friending” on Facebook.

Several education groups in Missouri support the idea of having individual school districts create their own policies.

“In a state as diverse as Missouri … it’s nearly impossible to draft a state policy that covers all the bases,” says DeeAnn Aull, a spokeswoman for the Missouri National Education Association in Jefferson City.

In rural counties, students often interact with teachers at church and scout meetings, creating a very different type of relationship than urban students have with teachers they see only at school. And the level of technology use varies greatly, too.

Because social media sites and related school policies are still relatively new, “local variation is a very good thing; different districts can try different things and we can see what works,” says Chad Flanders, an assistant law professor at St. Louis University.

But not everyone agrees that it’s wise to ask local school boards to take up the task.

“Balancing First Amendment rights and the interests the government does have here is a delicate business…. The legislature couldn’t get it right, and now they’re going to ask [hundreds of] school districts to each try to strike that balance,” says Tony Rothert, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, which filed a federal lawsuit against the law based on free-speech concerns. (That lawsuit is on hold pending action at the state level.)

The ACLU’s preference would be for the legislature or State Board of Education to come up with a statewide policy that passes constitutional muster, Mr. Rothert says.

The Missouri School Boards Association does offer model policies as a starting point for discussions in the state’s more than 500 districts. And many districts already have policies dealing with staff-student communication.

State and national attention to the issue has put a spotlight on both the negative and positive ways social media can be used by teachers and students.

In testimony before the Missouri Senate committee Wednesday, a police officer said he had investigated at least four cases of teachers having inappropriate sexual relationships with students, and that all of them involved contacts via text messaging or social media.

On the other hand, the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) in Columbia has received many stories from teachers who have been able to offer crucial support to at-risk students, at times via social media.

One case involved a teacher and coach in rural Missouri whose player texted him when he was considering suicide. The coach invited the student to his home to talk and was able to get him help, says MSTA spokesman Todd Fuller.

On Monday the Missouri Senate is set to debate the proposed change – passed this week by the Senate Education Committee. If passed it would still require approval by the House and Gov. Jay Nixon. The matter is one of several being taken up in a special session of the legislature called by the governor, who urged lawmakers to repeal the controversial portion of the law. His spokesman has not yet said whether he would approve the amended version.

The MSTA filed the state lawsuit in which a judge blocked the law from taking effect before late February, Mr. Fuller says. Although encouraged by the legislature’s steps to amend it this week, “we’re not going to stop [the lawsuit] until either this [new] language becomes law or the governor takes another step.”

• Associated Press material was used in this report.

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