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Missouri 'Facebook Law' Limits Teacher-Student Interactions Online, Draws Criticism And Praise

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If you're a parent, you've probably experienced a certain degree of fear at some point or another about your kids using the Internet. Maybe you peer over their shoulders while they check their Facebook pages, or try to catch glimpses of IM conversations they have with their friends. But do you worry about how they communicate online with their teachers? A new Missouri state law makes the case that you should.

The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, signed into law on July 14, is 35 pages long, but it is two sentences that are causing quite a stir and earning it the nickname the "Facebook Law."

No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a work-related internet site unless such site is available to school administrators and the child's legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian.

No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a nonwork-related internet site which allows exclusive access with a current or former student.

Republican State Sen. Jane Cunningham, who sponsored the bill, told HuffPost that its primary aim is to prevent teachers who have sexually assaulted a student from being placed in another district, a practice the Missouri Department of Education has referred to as “passing the trash” (Hestir was repeatedly assaulted as a student by a middle school teacher who worked in several Missouri school districts.).

Cunningham insisted that she's not preventing teachers from joining social networks or becoming Facebook friends with students. Rather, the idea is to discourage teachers and students from communicating exclusively, without a parent, guardian or school administrator being able to access the message.

"We are by no means trying to stop communication, just make it appropriate and make it available to those who should be seeing it," Cunningham said. "Exclusive communication is a pathway into the sexual misconduct."

Cunningham isn't the only one concerned with online communication between teachers and students of late. In the wake of last week's arrest of an eighth-grade teacher charged with having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old student, members of the board of education in Georgia's Bulloch County are planning to review school social media policies. The teacher allegedly communicated with the victim through popular social networking sites and by cellphone.

But critics argue that a student struggling with "Hamlet," for instance, misses a learning opportunity when he or she sees a teacher on IM and can't send a message. Or a student who is too shy to raise his hand in class might prefer to email his teacher, but might not feel comfortable knowing his parents or a member of the administration might be reading the email as well.

Many who work in and study education fear the bill is reaching too far.

"This concept of teacher immediacy (approachability, availability and warmth) has been widely studied," Cheri Simonds, a professor of Communications at Illinois State University who has written a textbook on how teachers can effectively communicate with students, said in an email. "Facebook is an avenue for establishing immediacy with students on their level."

According to Simonds, instant access in an educational context has been shown to improve student motivation and cognitive learning. Though her Facebook research has focused on college students, Simonds said that when used properly, the educational benefits of social media are applicable across age groups.

Simonds said she fears that the Missouri law and ones like it will lead to teachers erring on the side of caution and communicating less with students, resulting in weaker relationships. Tony Rothert, the legal director for the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, echoed that sentiment.

“I think that reasonable teachers are going to be afraid to use Facebook or Twitter at all, or anything that allows for requiring mutual consent before you can see what's posted,” Rothert said. He added that the bill "silences a lot more speech than would be necessary to attack the problem."

Others worry that administrators aren't being realistic about what it will take to implement the law and aren't taking into account the potential benefits of incorporating social networking into the classroom.

"The number one technology that students use outside school is social networking sites," said Christine Greenhow, an assistant professor at the College of Education and the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. "This is the technology they're going to as their one-stop shop for communication. It's their email, their bulletin board, their online photo album, it's where they do their writing."

For that reason, Greenhow, whose area of expertise is learning in social media contexts, argued that limiting communication between teachers and students only furthers the gap between a student's in-school life and his or her life outside of school.

"We know the best learning happens when teachers are able to integrate students' career interests, passions and the skills that they develop outside of school into the curriculum, and when students are able to take what they're learning in school and build on it outside of school," Greenhow said.

"It seems to assume the worst about teachers, that teachers are sexual predators," he added.

Amy Mascott, a mother of three and former teacher who started Teach Mama, a blog focusing on education, said in an email that she'd be upset if this law affected the school her children attend.

"I feel it immediately colors the teacher-student relationship in a negative way, assuming that all teachers are going to act inappropriately with students," Mascott said.

An alternative, she suggested, would be to increase funding for programs that teach students about online safety.

"Every 21st-century learner should have this kind of direct instruction every year beginning in late elementary school and continuing through 12th grade," she said.

Charol Shakeshaft, professor and chairwoman of the Department of Educational Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, who has studied sexual abuse of students by school employees, argued that critics of the bill are overreacting.

"Exclusive and private contact with your students isn't educationally necessary," she said. "In the same way that in a school we would say, 'No, you may not lock yourself into a room with a student,' this law effectively says, 'No you may not lock yourself into a website where only you can get to the student.'"

Shakeshaft pointed to blogs, open message boards, and Facebook fan pages as alternatives to one-on-one messaging and unmonitored emailing.

"It's perfectly possible to have a very valuable, educational teacher-student Facebook site or website that's open, where students can log on ... and from home, parents can also log on."

Parents aren't irrational in worrying about a teacher possibly taking advantage of students. A 2004 report Shakeshaft produced for the Department of Education found that 10 percent of public school children have been the victims of sexual harassment or abuse.

A 2007 Associated Press study found that there were 2,500 allegations of sexual misconduct by teachers, school psychologists, administrators and other school employees across 50 states over the course of five years.

And the Internet is a known tool of choice for those who prey on students. "A lot of the grooming of students for sexual abuse is now happening over the Internet," Shakeshaft said, noting that in the 50 court cases she has been consulted on involving students being sexually abused by school employees, all of them involved communication by email, IM, text or a social network.

"Anything I need to do as a teacher I can do in a public space or a space that can be accessed by people," Shakeshaft said. "If I need to be doing it completely in private, then I shouldn't be doing it."

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