Will new law bar teachers from 'friending' their own children?
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 22, 2011 - A seventh grade communications arts teacher at Ladue Middle School has filed suit against the district's school board and members of the Missouri state school board, claiming that the new law governing online communication between teachers and students would bar her from becoming friends with her own children on Facebook.
Christina Thomas said Ladue has told its teachers in a staff memo that if their own children were students or former students, who are covered by the law , then they are barred from "communicating exclusively through Facebook or other social-networking sites with their own children or members of their Sunday School classes, athletic teams or scout troops," according to the suit filed in U.S. District Court in St. Louis.
The law, known as the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, becomes effective this coming Sunday. Since it was passed and signed by Gov. Jay Nixon, school boards have been trying to come up with policies, as required, to govern private online communication between teachers and current or former students.
Thomas' suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the law's restrictions would in effect bar her from using "such widely employed forms of communication as Facebook and Google Docs." The suit names the Ladue district, Superintendent Marsha Chappelow and the seven members of the state school board as defendants and seeks an injunction against what it calls the law's "broad prior restraint on a large amount of protected speech."
The lawsuit was the latest action filed against the law. Last week, the Missouri State Teachers Association brought a similar challenge in state court.
Responding to the lawsuit, Susan Dielmann, spokeswoman for the Ladue schools, told the Beacon that the district had not issued any directive against the kind of communication that Thomas said was prohibited.
Instead, Dielmann cited a memo issued to Ladue school district staff on Aug. 9. It notes that the law requires the district to have in place by Jan. 1 of next year a policy regarding communications between students and both teachers and employees. It then listed 11 talking points, including one that reads:
"Teachers may not 'friend' current or former students on Facebook or similar social networking sites. The Act does not currently have any exceptions. The policy to be adopted by the Board will determine whether the district wishes to include any exceptions. There could be changes by the legislature or through the courts, but as the law stands now, as of January 1, 2012, teachers may not 'friend' even their own children on a Facebook or other social networking site, if their children are students or former students, as defined by law. Similarly, teachers may not 'friend' student-members of their Sunday School classes, select athletic teams, or scout troops, unless or until exceptions are enacted."
Dielmann emphasized the Ladue school board is "scrambling like every other school district and hoping for some clarification" of the law and what it will or will not allow.
But as far as Thomas' suit goes, Dielmann added that "it sounds to me like there may be some confusion there as to what we've been telling our staff as we provide information as to how our attorneys are interpreting it."
She added that "we have not directed teachers not to communicate with their children. I think that's where there may be some confusion here." She added that such a direction would actually go against the spirit of the law, which is designed to protect students from possibly harmful interactions online.
"Clearly that's not the intent of the law," Dielmann said of a prohibition of contact between a teacher and her children. "That flies in the face of the law, because those teachers cannot monitor their own children's Facebook accounts."
She said the Ladue board, with input from the Missouri School Boards Association, will work to come up with a policy that will put the requirements of the law into place. Until then, she said, the district's advice is: "Err on the side of caution.
"Don't write anything anywhere - and this isn't anything different from what we would have said before this - that you wouldn't want an administrator, a parent or a federal judge to see. That's just common sense."
State Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, refers to another "common sense" aspect of the whole lawsuit - the fact that even though the law was the product of four years of legislative work, no one thought about the possibility of teachers being blocked from communicating online with their own children.
As a result, Cunningham told the Beacon, she plans to put forth an amendment in next year's legislative session to correct that oversight.
"She doesn't need a suit to get it fixed," said Cunningham, who is a former member of the Ladue school board. "There's a glitch in the bill."
She also emphasized that "former students" only refers to minors, under the age of 18, who have not graduated, which she said was another point that has been raised by critics of the legislation.
Cunningham said she has been surprised by the amount of controversy over the bill in recent weeks, given its bipartisan support in the legislature and its passage by unanimous votes in both the House and Senate.
She was particularly puzzled by the suit filed by the Missouri State Teachers Association, which she said was one of the many education groups in the state that worked to help write the law in the first place.
"I find it's a real disservice to dues-paying members of MSTA," Cunningham said, "to use their hard-earned teacher funds to sue over legislation that they actually helped craft, endorse and promote. They're suing over their own work."
Cunningham and the Missouri National Education Association plan to hold a conference call Tuesday morning to discuss issues that have arisen over the bill, particularly ones that could be solved with amendments next year.
Responding to the suit against the legislation filed by the MSTA last week, MNEA President Chris Guinther said in a statement:
"Trying to fix this problem with a long drawn out court battle that costs the state a lot of money doesn't make sense to us, especially when the bill sponsor is willing to work on a timely solution. We'd rather have that money spent on educating kids. It seems like a waste of state resources."