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Missouri Outlaws Student-Teacher Facebook Friendship

A law signed into law last month in Missouri is making waves nationally, this week. A small part of the wide-ranging SB54, makes it illegal for teachers to be "friends" with students on any social networking site that allows private communication.

That means teachers and students can't be friends on Facebook or can't follow each other on Twitter for example.

All Things Considered's Michele Norris spoke to an eighth grade teacher from Joplin, Mo., who opposes the new law. Randy Turner, who teaches English, said as teachers your job is to reach out to students and that means going where they are and now a days students have shunned e-mail and are using social networking sites to communicate.

The larger bill, explained Turner, was passed with great support because it was intended to protect children from predatory teachers. It was intended, he said, to stop what is termed "passing the trash," which is when teachers who have had inappropriate contact with students resign quietly only to be hired by another school.

But Turner argues instead of protecting children, this new law may be hurting them. "We may be preventing them from talking to the very people who may be able to help," he said.

In a story last month, Springfield's KSPR talked to a teacher from Nixa, Mo.

Band Director Craig Finger said he has no problem with the law, because the lines between teacher and student are clear to him.

"... If you ask any one of these kids it's very clear we're not friends," Finger said. "We don't friend any students. If you haven't graduated we're not friends. I think the only people I've friended under 18 are my niece and nephew."

But Turner said that in the aftermath of the massive Joplin tornado that killed more than 100, Facebook proved instrumental. He was able to locate 20 students to find out they were OK, because he was friends with them on Facebook. Another teacher, said Turner, who monitors the chatter on Facebook was able to stop a fight.

Plus, Turner says, a lot of other teachers believe this is yet another law that "seems to be saying that children need to be protected from teachers."

Much more of Michele's conversation with Turner will air on your local NPR member station on today's edition ofAll Things Considered . We'll also post the as-aired version of the interview here a bit later tonight.

Update on Aug. 3 at 9:58 a.m. ET. The View From The Bill's Sponsor:

State Rep. Chris Kelly, the sponsor of SB54, told us the bill does not ban teachers from communicating with students on Facebook or other social media sites. Kelly said it bans private communication.

So, for example, while teachers and students can't be "friends," they can interact publicly on the wall of a "fan page."

"I want the parents and the schools to be able to see the communication," said Kelly, who added that both the American Civil Liberties Union and the teacher's unions gave the bill an OK before it became law.

Kelly said the bill's intention isn't to stifle the relationship between students and teachers, but he said if something is of importance, the "internet is no place" for that conversation to happen.

"Important communication should not happen on Twitter," Kelly said.

Kelly added that inappropriate relationships between students and teachers usually happen when opportunity abounds. He said this law simply removes that easy opportunity.

Update on Aug. 3 at 5:57 p.m. ET. ACLU Statement:

The ACLU of Eastern Missouri disputes Kelly's claim that the organization backed the bill. John Chasnoff, program director for the ACLU, told us in an email that they "did not agree with the bill and took an official position against it."

He added:

Our position is that the law's language requires school districts to create a policy that bars teachers from any use of Facebook or other websites that would allow private communications between teacher and student.

The law's sponsors are reported to deny that their intent was so extreme. If so, it needs to be repealed. In its current form, however, the law is an unconstitutional restriction on freedoms of speech and association.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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