Use Books But Not Facebook: Missouri Makes Electronic Contact Between Teachers and Students Illegal

posted Aug 2, 2011, 1:32 PM by Calan McConkey   [ updated Aug 2, 2011, 4:05 PM ]
Today something was brought to my attention that really concerns me. That something is the new Missouri law that [seemingly] covers social networking and schools. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon signed the aforementioned Senate Bill 54 last week and it will go into effect August 28th. I've reproduced the relevant portion of the law below to help aid with the upcoming discussion:

SECTION 162.069 - By January 1, 2012, every school district must develop a written policy concerning teacher-student communication and employee-student communications. Each policy must include appropriate oral and nonverbal personal communication, which may be combined with sexual harassment policies, and appropriate use of electronic media as described in the act, including social networking sites. Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child's legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student. Former student is defined as any person who was at one time a student at the school at which the teacher is employed and who is eighteen years of age or less and who has not graduated.

By January 1, 2012, each school district must include in its teacher and employee training a component that provides information on identifying signs of sexual abuse in children and of potentially abusive relationships between children and adults, with an emphasis on mandatory reporting. Training must also include an emphasis on the obligation of mandated reporters to report suspected abuse by other mandatory reporters.

The first part of Section 162.069 makes sense to me. We are mandating that each school district develop a policy regarding schools and teacher-student communication and, specifically, social networking sites. Fine. Just say that no contact with students that is not exclusively school-related or, if you are particularly concerned about it, no contact with students outside of school hours. This part I get. The next section, however, is ridiculous.

When drafting legislation -- not that I have any experience -- one of the primary goals is to make it clear what is and what is not illegal. If this is not achieved, you could potentially have issues with the statute being overly broad or void for being too vague. I am concerned we may have something close to that here. 

"Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student. Former student is defined as any person who was at one time a student at the school at which the teacher is employed and who is eighteen years of age or less and who has not graduated."

To me, the problem with this law comes up based on the use of the blue highlighted terms above. In particular, what is meant by "nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access?" From what I can tell, a definition is never given. Simply put, I guess it is any website that is not run by the school district where you can contact another user directly. I'm sure this is meant to target Facebook and MySpace, but, in my opinion, it does much more than that. Did the drafters ever stop and think about these neat little websites that allow you to send an electronic message to someone else? Yes, I am talking about e-mail. To me, e-mail is a very powerful tool that can be utilized by school districts to aid with learning and can allow a student to privately contact a teacher -- and yes, there are legitimate reasons for this to happen. Is the Missouri legislature really trying to make email between students and teachers illegal? Based on my reading, this law -- assuming there are no other clarifications or revisions -- does exactly that.

Continuing on, it is not only against the law for a teacher to have contact with a student, but also a former student that is 18 or younger and that has not yet graduated. This essentially narrows it down to high school students that are still in school. I see what they are doing here, but I don't like it.

I feel like I can better drive my point home about how bad this legislation is by giving some potential real world examples instead of just ranting about the legislature missing the mark. So, I'll give it a shot and I'll try to keep the examples as realistic as possible.

Example 1: College Student comes back on Christmas vacation to her hometown. College Student has 60 credit hours (the state minimum to be a substitute teacher) and decides to substitute for spare cash over her break. College Student -- now a sophomore in college -- has multiple friends in high school because she just graduated two years ago from the same school. College Student accepts the substitute teaching assignment and, unsurprisingly, has a real life friend and, consequently, a "Facebook friend" in class. Based on the new law, college student is breaking the rules.

Example 2: Teacher has daughter in class as a student. Teacher, being the parent of the student, is friends with their daughter on Facebook. Based on the new law, Teacher/parent is breaking the rules.

Example 3: Student has a question about an assignment given in class. Instead of sitting at home all night not understanding what to do, Student decides to e-mail Teacher for clarification. Based on the new law, both Teacher is breaking the rules...even if they don't respond to the email.

Example 4: Substitute accepts an assignment to teach high school. Substitute has a younger sibling in class. Substitute is friends with the sibling on Facebook. Based on the new law, Substitute is breaking the rules.

Example 5: Teacher/Coach wants to quickly tell their players that practice in canceled. Teacher/Coach sends email to the players stating the same. Although this is not "exclusive access", the website/email does allow "exclusive access" so, based on the new law, Teacher/Coach is breaking the rules.

And I could keep going.

Now, don't get me wrong. I realize that for every legitimate purpose there is also likely an improper purpose for a teacher to be in contact with a student. But that doesn't mean we should just pass a law that makes it all illegal. If I were the one in charge of drafting this legislation I would have left it simply as the first two lines of the legislation -- essentially requiring every school district to adopt a policy regarding social networking and student-teacher communication. Then each school can decide what is improper based on their individual district. They could even have school board meetings and all of that good stuff so the parents can voice their opinions. But apparently that was not good enough here. Our paternalistic legislature decided to step in and tell all the teachers and students in Missouri what is improper. And now, because of this, email and Facebook -- along with a slew of other websites -- are completely off limits without any concern for the actual purpose or use of the communication. The legislature here is essentially using a hatchet instead of a scalpel. I'm sure there are plenty of bad apple teachers out there but, last time I checked, we consider a good teacher someone who can communicate effectively with our children which, ideally, leads to education. We are now completely removing an important means for communication between students and teachers without any concern for the actual intent or content of what is being said.

All right, I'm done with my rant. But I will leave you with a few parting questions to think about. First off, what is the punishment for violating the new statute? Based on my cursory inspection, I can't find any mention of it. Should it be criminal in nature? Maybe it will be left up to the schools. And finally, the statute specifically says "teachers...cannot have a nonwork-related website." Is this language concerning to anyone else? To me, "have" implies ownership and "website" implies the actual domain name and associated servers, etc. For example: Mark Zuckerberg has a website, and that website is Facebook. I have a website: Does someone "have a website" just by signing up for a Facebook page? Think on that one. I can tell you this much, if I were defending someone for violating this law I would definitely attack that language.

For further reading, here are some other sites: Huffington Post and NPR