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Fear of sexual contact between students, teachers halts interaction on social media

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 5, 2011 - With a new law regulating social media contact between teachers and students going into effect Aug. 28, local school districts are developing or reviewing their policies and guidelines. Of particular concern for school districts is the question of whether educators and students may interact over social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, as well as over text messaging.

With regard to social media, the law, SB 54, states: "Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child's legal ... guardian." It also forbids "a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student."

Preparing for the policy

While the new law goes into effect at the end of this month, public schools have until Jan. 1 to adopt a policy. The Missouri School Boards Association is sending out a sample policy in early September, said spokesman Brent Ghan.

Ironically, said Susan Goldammer, an attorney for the association, last year the group issued a policy on student-teacher interaction over social media that she said goes even further than what the new law requires. It prohibited all employees in the public school districts from knowingly granting access to their personal social media accounts to students.

The policy was sent out to all member school districts, Goldammer said, and some adopted it and some didn't. The sample policy that MSBA plans to send out in early September will go one step further to require training on social media interaction between employees and students, as SB54 requires.

The new law won't be much of a problem for districts like Kirkwood, which adopted a policy on student-teacher social networking in 2010. That policy prohibits student-teacher interaction using personal social media accounts, the same issue SB54 addresses.

"We make sure we stress the social networking piece," said Ginger Fletcher, director of communications for the Kirkwood district. "Not because of the law that was recently passed, but because more and more teachers are using Facebook and kids (are using) social media, we go over this every year now at the beginning of the school year."

Fletcher said a lot of teachers and even administrators use third-party websites for curriculum purposes, like the site Ning where students and teachers can communicate about class-related subjects. Parents may also view the site and know that it is a class tool.

Fletcher said it is up to the teachers to maintain a professional relationship with their students and teachers are trained on how to do this. When students request to be their teachers' friends on Facebook, Fletcher said teachers send a nice note to the students saying they must decline or wait until the student has graduated to accept the invitation.

No limitations on social media apply to students who have already graduated.

St. Louis Public Schools spokeswoman Julie Linder said the district is working on a policy. Linder added that she is unaware of any social media misconduct in the past.

Missouri State Teachers Association spokeswoman Aurora Meyer said that judging from calls it has received, members feel the law needs more clarification.

"There's not a lot for teachers to go on," Meyer said. "It's going to inhibit communication."

Meyer gave an example of how a ban on certain kinds of interactions might harm students. A teacher with at-risk students might text them when they aren't in class to ask where they are. Many students respond to texts, but not to phone calls, Meyer said.

Another issue teachers brought up with the bill is their use of third-party websites to communicate with their students for curriculum purposes.

"Some of our members are becoming concerned because they use Facebook chat (to help their students) to study for exams," Meyer said.

Legislative Background

State Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, said the social media aspect was a sidelight in a bill intended to protect school children from sexual abuse.

The main focus of the bill is with school districts' communication about educators let go due to sexual misconduct. Districts used to sign confidentiality agreements promising not to tell another school district about any past issues with sexual misconduct, said Cunningham.

Under this new law, school districts are required to be transparent with future districts. Cunningham said if an educator accused of misconduct were hired at a new school district and then caused similar problems, the district that formerly employed that teacher could be liable if it had not revealed the educator's history of misconduct.

"If you do not disclose a substantiated complaint for sexual misconduct, and there are future problems, you are liable to future districts and victims with problems," Cunningham said. "While we were walking through the bill, we found that social networking and electronic media was the pathway often times to the sexual misconduct between educators and students."

Cunningham said the legislation does not stop work-related study sessions from happening over social media. But it might have stopped a situation with a teenage student and teacher from Jefferson City schools found to be having sexual relations. Seven hundred text messages had been exchanged, and Cunningham said they were not about school.

"The only thing that is not OK is exclusive access between a teacher and a student," she said. "All of the teacher groups at the capital supported this legislation." It passed "the House and the Senate unanimously."

Allison Prang, a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is a summer intern at the Beacon. 

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