© 2022 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Teachers aren't the enemy, but they're not 'friends' either

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 18, 2011 - Pamela used to have a Facebook account. But that ended not long ago when she deactivated it due to worries over recent action in the far away halls of state government in Jefferson City.

"This is part of the problem I have with the law," said the St. Louis area teacher. "There is too much gray area. There is too much room for interpretation, and it's not clear cut. A lot of districts are desperately flailing and trying to find out what do they mean by this or that."

The impetus for Pamela, who did not want her real name used, to leave the world's largest social networking site is the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, or SB 54, which was passed unanimously by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jay Nixon earlier this year.

The main thrust of the measure, which was generally supported by state educational groups, concerned protecting children from potential predators in the schools. But one provision of the new law has drawn fire and provoked confusion among some who say it goes too far. The legislation bans teachers from using a nonwork-related internet site to gain "exclusive access" with current or former students who are age 18 or younger and have not graduated. It also mandates that districts draw up policies regarding teachers' use of social media and electronic communications such as texting. That the section affects educators' involvement with Facebook and similar sites is clear but the extent to which it does so remains a matter of some debate.

The Intent

Though Pamela dumped her Facebook page, observers agree that teachers are not prohibited from using social media. Contrary to popular belief, they aren't even banned from friending their students while online -- at least not at the state level. The issue, said state Sen. Jane Cunningham, who sponsored the bill, is the term "exclusive access." The Chesterfield Republican said online communications are still possible between teacher and student. They simply have to take place in the public domain or when a third party is copied on the exchange.

"Districts seem to think it's very reasonable and it's not too restrictive at all," she said. "In fact, many districts already have a policy like this. Most of them I've found are more restrictive than this and they've been operating on it for a while because they are recognizing the potential problems involved with these new ways of communication."

The idea is to prevent what Cunningham refers to as "hidden communication," conversations between teachers and students over electronic media that falls beyond the eyes of parents and administrators. She said the bill doesn't cover anything more than one-on-one messages in chats and emails with minors.

"If it's on the wall or in chats going on that everyone can see, obviously that's not hidden to just the two people," she said.

Cunningham said there was a great deal of confusion and misinformation about the bill that has stirred unnecessary concern. Use of the term "former student" has even provoked fears that educators are prohibited from friending their ex-pupils even after they are adults.

In fact, the bill specifies that the phrase does not cover those over 18.

"I've even gotten calls from colleges and I say, 'You're not impacted by this bill at all,'" Cunningham said. "If you've graduated from high school, you're not impacted."

Cunningham said she felt the provision was necessary after hearing of instances around the state where she said teachers have gotten into private exchanges with students over mundane classroom issues that evolved into something more troubling.

"The ones that I have seen that have developed into an inappropriate relationship have started oftentimes appropriately," she said.

DeeAnn Aull, assistant executive director of the Missouri branch of the National Education Association, said her organization originally opposed Cunningham's effort several years ago, though not over the electronic communications provision, which wasn't even in the bill at the time. Since then, however, Aull said the senator has worked to incorporate NEA suggestions into the legislation and the group had testified in favor of it.

"In general, we supported the bill, which was about protecting children," she said. "There probably were some things we would have liked to have seen left to local control and board policy in the bill as it reads now and we will work on those changes in the future."

Cunningham said she'd been in regular contact with NEA and among those changes will be a provision that exempts teachers who have children from their own household in their classroom from the exclusive access limitation. She said that such fixes to minor oversights are not unusual in new laws.

She said she's gotten calls from teachers both in support and opposition.

Aull agreed. She said that NEA has heard from educators over the bill as well.

"You could certainly say there was concern as well as lack of understanding as well as quite a bit of misunderstanding about what the bill does and doesn't do," she said. "We want to seek clarity both for the teachers and their ability to correspond with students and their families."

According to a FAQ on the bill issued by Missouri NEA, the law does not prohibit teachers from friending students online, but individual district policies may do so. The NEA FAQ notes that the organization "strongly recommends" not friending students.

The Extent

Still, what is and is not covered by the law is still a matter of some confusion. Email is one gray area. Cunningham said it is covered as a form of "exclusive access" and should be copied to a third party.

But Susan Goldammer, a staff attorney with the Missouri School Boards' Association, said she doesn't see that in the wording.

"Perhaps it is good advice if you are going to email a student to 'cc' another person on it, but that is not explicitly spelled out in the statute as it exists right now," she said.

The MSBA, which counts about 80 percent of the state's 522 districts as members, has been deluged with calls seeking guidance on the new law, particularly since districts are now required to produce a policy on the topic. The organization hopes to have a sample text available by September.

Though the law goes on the books later this month, the provisions requiring policies won't take effect until January.

MSBA favored the law but took no specific position on the social networking piece.

Goldammer said that while MSBA is revising its guidelines due to the act's passage, it already had a policy in place which in some respects goes further than the state law.

"Many districts have adopted our standard policy which we changed in the last year to address maintaining professional boundaries," she said. "When it comes to social media, we did have a prohibition against staff members friending students on Facebook."

Staffers were also prohibited from distributing personal emails or phone numbers to students. Work email accounts, which can be accessed by administrators, are a different matter.

"We didn't specifically address district-provided communication tools but then again, districts have the ability to monitor those tools much easier," she said.

While Goldammer doesn't think emails are covered, she notes the waters remain murky.

"That's my interpretation," she said. "I think if you call six different lawyers you are going to get six different interpretations of this particular statute.

To her, it's a reflection of how complex the whole issue can be.

"It's incredibly difficult, and I don't even know if I would encourage a law trying to grasp all of the nuances of appropriate communications," she said.

Appropriate Vs. Inappropriate

Some educators are supporters of the law's provisions. Marge, another local teacher who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said she knows several teachers who friend their students.

"They use it to keep in contact with recent graduates or former students in various fashions," she said. "Myself, I think it's dangerous. It's too easy to get into a very bad situation even resulting from an innocent conversation or another friend posting something you are not expecting."

Marge said she is very active on Facebook but never friends students. One reason is that it can bring teachers too far into the personal lives of their pupils. But the reverse is also true as pictures of teachers in informal settings can be on such sites.

"If a student or former student happens to be a friend, then they have access to those photographs that they have no business seeing of the educational professionals they work with every day," she said.

She echoed Cunningham saying she knows of educators who have found themselves in awkward discussions.

"I've seen very good people get into interesting conversations that they are not necessarily clear on how they got into that conversation," she said. "That's why it's very important to keep your personal and professional lives as separate entities."

By contrast, Pamela said she disagreed with the communications aspect of the law, saying it was vague and unclear. For instance, she said that her understanding was that recent policy from her district included not friending former students even if they were no longer minors.

Teachers, she said, are not the enemy.

"If a district is going to hire me to teach these kids every single day, then there is an implied trust with that," she said. "I think it boils down to having faith in your teachers and trusting that we are going to do what's right. Most of us do what's right."

Still, she said she understood the intent of the law, agreed with other parts of it and, like Marge, had a strict policy of not friending minor pupils herself.

"Facebook is a valuable tool for communication with students, but in my opinion there has to be a line somewhere," she said.

District Policies

Some districts like Webster Groves already have policies regarding social media. Based on the MSBA policy, the Webster guidelines prohibit knowingly granting students "access to any portion of the member's personal social networking website or webpage that is not accessible to the general public."

Given the privacy settings most people employ on Facebook that means teachers may not friend students.

Steve Beatty, chief information officer for the Rockwood School District, said that the district does have guidelines on appropriate use of electronic communications but does not specifically address social networking. They are presently developing a new policy dealing with a committee of parents, students and administrators.

"In talking to the districts, I think we're all in the same boat trying to make sure that we do what's appropriate," he said. "We're all working on it."

Beth Cross, communications director for the Lindbergh School District, said her district didn't have a formal policy on social media use but was in the process of doing presentations to teachers on the topic when the new law came to light.

She said that Lindbergh encourages the use of Facebook by teachers but only through the use of public classroom pages.

"We've found that teachers find it to be a valuable tool because that's where their kids are, especially in high school," she said.

The district neither encouraged nor prohibited teachers and students friending one another on social media, she said.

As with the other districts, a formal policy is now being being drawn up.

"Our message is not 'Stop using Facebook,'" she said. "Our message is use it and use it well, but we want to make sure you are protected and following these regulations that have been put in on the state level."

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that no one is suggesting students to stop talking to those at the front of their classroom.

"The last thing anybody wants to do is cut off legitimate uses of electronic communications, particularly to this generation that is so wired in," Goldammer said.

David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.