Teachers Protest Social Media Crackdown

By Alan Scher Zagier

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- As they prepare lesson plans for fall, teachers across Missouri have an extra chore before the new school year begins: Purging their Facebook friend lists to comply with a new state law that limits their contact with students on social networks.

The law was proposed after an Associated Press investigation found that 87 Missouri teachers had lost their licenses between 2001 and 2005 because of sexual misconduct, some of which involved exchanging explicit online messages with students.

But many teachers are protesting the new restrictions, complaining the law will hurt their ability to keep in touch with students, whether for classroom purposes, personal problems or even emergencies.

The new law forbids teachers from having "exclusive access" online with current students or former students who remain minors, meaning any contact on Facebook or other sites must be done in public rather than through private messages.

Lucinda Lawson, an English teacher at Hartville High School in southern Missouri, expects to purge nearly 80 current and former students from her Facebook account, and she worries that doing so could leave some students vulnerable.

Private messages give "truly supportive teachers the chance to get help for them when they're in dangerous or compromising situations," Lawson said.

Lawson once called a state child-abuse hotline after a private online conversation revealed dangerous drug use by a student's adult family member. She encouraged a pregnant teen to remain in school and helped the girl tell her parents. Another student confided that his attendance woes and classroom struggles were caused by the financial and emotional stress of caring for a mentally ill parent.

Lawson has no qualms with other provisions in the law to monitor teachers accused of sexual misconduct, such as conducting annual criminal background checks and requiring districts to share information about employees who are fired or resign in sex-abuse cases.

Still, she says, teachers often use Facebook and other online forums for legitimate educational purposes -- and to help students with personal troubles that they might not be willing to discuss in more public settings.

In Joplin, where 160 people died and hundreds more were injured by a historic tornado in May, several teachers relied on Facebook to track down missing students in the storm's immediate aftermath.

"I am not a pervert and don't wish to be treated as one," Joplin middle school teacher Alana Maddock wrote in an email to Gov. Jay Nixon in June, not long before he signed the legislation. "I am very responsible with my Facebook pages and don't appreciate being assumed to be a danger to my students."

The law, which takes effect Aug. 28, does not outright prohibit teachers from interacting with students on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and other sites. Instead, it requires local school districts to create written policies by January that outline "appropriate use of electronic media such as text messaging and Internet sites for both instructional and personal purposes."

It will be up to individual districts to define "exclusive access," but in general the law holds that any contact must be made in the public sphere rather than through private messages. So teachers can set up public Facebook pages or Twitter accounts but can't reach out to their students as friends or followers, or vice versa.

State Sen. Jane Cunningham, who sponsored the proposal, said many educators who have spoken against the new rules misunderstand them. The legislation had backing from education lobbyists and organized teacher groups, and enjoyed unanimous support from lawmakers.

"Any teacher who is really working hard with a student privately would want to have a parent or administrator know how hard they're working," said Cunningham, a Republican from suburban St. Louis. "The only problem is if there's something they want to hide."

Despite its earlier support for the measure, the Missouri State Teachers Association now says it plans to seek changes when legislators return to the Capitol in January.

"The problem is the bill is so vague," said Todd Fuller, a spokesman for the statewide teachers' group. "There is a lot of interpretation left up to a local school district."

Many school districts already have such policies in place, and individual teachers have their own internal guidelines, Fuller added.

Nate Smith, a debate coach and history teacher at Lee's Summit High School near Kansas City, said he already declines students' Facebook friend requests to maintain personal and professional distance. He worries that some overzealous districts will go even further than the limits spelled out in the new law.

"You'll have a lot of school districts that will ban all forms of social media communication with students," he said. "There could be some really good educational opportunities lost."

In Hartville, Lawson isn't the only member of her household who needs to amend her Facebook settings. Her husband is also a teacher, and their 14-year-old daughter, Olivia, relied on Facebook to communicate with her English teacher to discuss school projects.

Olivia Lawson said that she spends several hours a day on Facebook. And like her mother, she recalls examples of friends and classmates who shared concerns with teachers online that they would not dare discuss in person.

"In person, there's always the chance of someone else hearing you," she said. "Sometimes you don't really want your friends to know what you're talking about with a teacher."

Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier

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hummm, their should be a good law suit in this one...
the rights of the people... remember ,,, the rights of the people...

seems now in the obama administration the rigths of the people are vanishing
day by day..

August 09 2011 at 12:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think that a better method for teacher/student association could be achieved through school websites, where IT personnel could provide a program which would scan messages for inappropriate/explicit words and phrases, and the situations could be better monitored. 87 teachers fired for misconduct in four years is NOT good.

August 08 2011 at 10:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to N68Firebird's comment

Scanning for inappropriate or explicit words is useless, because not only would anyone with less than honorable intentions just avoid such words, but entirely innocent communications would be swept up, like a science teacher explaining how a process may "suck" or "squeeze" the air out of something, or a Social Studies teacher talking about Thomas Hooker. If the school can't afford its own website for each class, a Facebook site for the class is perfectly reasonable, separate and apart from a teacher's personal Facebook page. The school can keep a log of the passwords on file to do a spot check of the messages.

August 09 2011 at 9:47 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Any teacher bent on pursuing a unlawful relationship with a student will find the means to do it. Meanwhile, legitimate teacher/student relationships have to go by the wayside. We have become such lame brains and this bill proves it. Cellphones offer the same kind of "illicit" contact that a computer does. So, are they going to ban cellphones next? Those setting the rules for the rest of us need to clear their heads of all the junk political correctness has brought about. We have truly lost our minds and common sense. No wonder we're on the path to oblivion.

August 08 2011 at 6:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dale Banton

If social net-tworking is such a problem, no teacher should be allowed to be alone with a student at anytime during the school day, after class, or during special events. Is this the ultimate goal of the radical minority that has succeded in taking God out of eveything but the church and the hearts of the American majority. There are already laws on the books to protect the young from sexual predators, including teachers. We, therefore, don't need some lame brained idiot(s) to force their slanted and warped views upon the rest of us. Social net working can be a very useful tool for both the teacher and the student and should not be disallowed. We cannot isolate our children and protect them from every conceivable risk to their well being including bad teachers, clergy and pediophiles. To those in Columbia, Mo.that are affected by this decision , vote the scoundrels out. We don't need this kind of representation.

August 08 2011 at 5:37 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

When the bad guys, (be they pedophiles or terrorists) force us to make concessions and adjustments to our lifestyle, they have won a victory over us. _ This is a terrible problem, and steps need to be taken to protect our children; parents need to step up and take responsibility for their own. _ It is also a terrible thing that we have come to the point where we hold suspect any non-related adult who takes an interest in, or fosters an innocent relationship with children. _ Not every such adult has evil intent, and it is evil to suspect otherwise. _ They say: "It takes a village..." and it would be wrong to sequester our children and prevent them from experiencing healthy relationships with a wide variety of people. _ Children must be protected, but not by excluding them from the opportunity to learn from responsible adults, even if they are not related. _ The only option is vigilance, but on a one-by-one basis, and not a sweeping prohibition such as the one in Missouri.

August 08 2011 at 5:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This stupid thing is necessary because parents don't pay attention to their childrens use of computers. When we didn't have computers teachers [very loosely termed "teachers"] the few perverts had to go out of their way to get to those kids. With this new law, the perverts will have to revert to the old style. In the mean time the good teachers will have less contact with the students.

August 08 2011 at 5:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think it was Mark Twain who said, "First, God made idiots, for practice. Then He made school boards."

August 08 2011 at 5:18 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The old saying 'if we can stop this from happening to one person, it is worth it' has gone way too far. In this case 98% are paying for 2% of indiscretion. You cannot punish everybody for what a few does. The law makers are writing these laws just to stay in business. For America to continue to punish everybody for the indiscretions of a few is socialistic and totalitarian. Can you imagine a world where children are sequestered away from all adults except the parents? That's where we are headed with this. Not condoning what these people did at all, but we must make a decision if we want to remain a free country. If we don't, expect a rain of socialistic laws. It has been sprinkling for quite awhile now already.

August 08 2011 at 5:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I HAVE A QUESTION, and anyone who can, will they please answer it for me. It pertains to same sex marriage. If you put 1,000.000 lesbian married couples on an island, with no contact with the heterosexual population and 1,000.000 gay male married couples on a separate island with no contact with the heterosexual population, what would happened to that population in……say 50 or 100 yrs? Just a question

August 08 2011 at 4:56 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to wjac223334's comment

Sperm swim

August 08 2011 at 5:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

lol I am not gay, but obviously this question is about the whole world turning gay. Don't worry, it won't happen. Women make me melt. There will never be a time when women do not turn on guys. If you are suggesting that the human race is going to go extinct cause they passed a law, then you are as naive as the question. In fact, if gays bother you, maybe it is because you scared you may be gay. It is so much on your mind that you couldn't even wait to find an article about gays to comment on.

August 08 2011 at 11:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am a teacher and common sense dictates a professional boundary between students and myself. I have a school email address which parents and students are free to use to contact me. I am available on site before and after school for them. It would be inappropriate for me to give out personal information.

August 08 2011 at 4:55 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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