Had the first version of the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act stood, Missouri teachers may not have been able to be Facebook friends with their own children. As originally written, the ‘Facebook law’ implied that teachers with children in school in the same district would be prohibited from electronic communication, just one of the propositions of the bill that created an uproar around the state. “It prevented teachers from communicating with their own family members,” says Katie Forster, attorney with Lashly & Baer.
Several lawsuits were brought against Senate Bill 54 last year, including one from the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) that addressed teachers’ first amendment rights to free speech with students. In response, the law was revised with new language requiring each school district to develop its own social media policy by March 1 regarding electronic contact between staff and students. “With the progression of technology, schools need to take a diligent position to make sure their students are protected without interfering with the freedom of speech,” says Margo Green of Green Cordonnier & House. “The real test is determining what is proper and improper communication.”
Forster works with several area districts and helped them to create their social media policies. “We advised our districts to limit communication to solely education- based. If teachers send emails, they should copy another staff member or parent so there’s another set of eyes seeing that it’s a legitimate conversation.”
Both the MSTA and the Missouri School Board Association released model policies that some districts drew from, while others looked to panels of administrators, parents and teachers to add input. However, without overreaching rules, there may be a lack of consistency from district to district. “It’s a concern that instead of one law, we have 300-something varying policies,” says Ryan Munro, attorney with Paule, Camazine & Blumenthal. “It’s going to be a bit of a tangled mess until the state can review whether each policy is stringent enough, and each school board makes sure it’s not running afoul of the First Amendment.”
Discipline also is up to each school district. “We advised school boards to set it forth so teachers know their activity is subject to repercussions, up to and including termination,” Forster explains.
With the growing incidence of inappropriate activity between teachers or staff and students, legitimate conversation is a major focus of the policies. Many teachers have their own classroom websites, so there are outlets for students to communicate about homework; however, it is easy to fall back on other forms of technology. “It’s second nature for younger teachers to just send an email or a text, but having a policy in writing is a reminder to them to be more careful and consider how to The choice contact their students,” Forster says.
While a social media policy is necessary to protect students, it also creates often unwarranted impressions about teachers in general, Munro explains. “It’s not the intent, but the implication of the law is that teachers are of a class of predators. They are held to a much higher standard than the general population. You trust them to have contact with your children every day, but you don’t trust them to text or email?”
Therefore, it is important for teachers to protect themselves, as well, says Munro. “You should review your policy with your union advocate and assume anything you do on the Internet will be seen. Be transparent.”
With the Facebook law newly in effect, Green suspects there will be adjustments as issues arise or the policies are contested. “Only time will tell how this new law will work and if it will adequately protect students’ safety—the whole purpose of it.”
And at the same time, parents should be the first line of defense against any inappropriate electronic communication with their children, whether it’s a teacher or a person down the street, Munro advises. “Parents need to be vigilant about monitoring their kids. They are the best-suited to protect their children—not the school district.”