The State Senate sponsor of new student protection legislation is defending the bill against criticism from members of the Missouri educational community. Senator Jane Cunningham
says that attacks on the
new statute, which regulates online student-teacher communication, are the result of misinformation and misinterpretation. The section in controversy is one paragraph in a 35-page bill designed to combat sexual misconduct between school district employees and students.
Teachers representatives have falsely claimed and much of the mainstream media has falsely reported that the new law will prohibit teachers from communicating with their students through Facebook and other social media platforms. Some have even made the wild allegation that the new law will ban any electronic communication between teachers and students.
What the law actually says is that "no teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a nonwork-related internet site which allows exclusive access with a current or former student. " "Exclusive access" means that the
information on the website is available only to the teacher and the student, and where third parties (such as parents and administrators) have no access to the content.
The purpose of the provision was to discourage inappropriate relationships between educators and students by forbidding private conversations which could be hidden from parents and school district authorities. Cunningham contends that the new restriction regulating online teacher-student interaction is a "common-sense, family-friendly law."
Over the summer months, teachers unions have raised concerns about the so-called "Facebook" provision, fanned by freedom of speech cries from the American Civil Liberties Union and distorted press accounts. Despite the fact that the bill was passed unanimously by both Houses of the General Assembly with the full knowledge and support of the teachers unions, spokesmen for the teachers unions rushed to the head of the parade to call for reversal of the law.
While the Missouri National Education Association entered into constructive conversations with Senator Cunningham to seek clarifications in the law, the Missouri State Teachers Association went to court to invalidate the law on free speech grounds. The MSTA
made the unsupported allegation that the new law would prohibit necessary and routine communication among students, teachers, and parents. The fact is the law expressly permits such communication on work-related websites.
Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem has now issued a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the law. Beetem concluded that the law "would have a chilling effect on speech," and thus violates free expression guarantees of the First Amendment. Governor Nixon has called for the repeal of the new law, and has included the subject in a call for a
special session of the Legislature which will convene the day after Labor Day. Senator Cunningham disagrees with repeal, and so do we.
"Repeal would allow any public school employee to privately communicate with children without parental permission or oversight, " Cunningham says. "How would parents feel about an absolute right for an adult to hide messages to your minor son or daughter and you have no means to stop it?"
Senator Cunningham points to the statistics that document the pervasive problem of teachers and coaches taking sexual advantage of their students. An
Associated Press study found that Missouri was the 11th worst state in the nation for teachers losing their licenses for engaging in sexual misconduct. That study found a total of 2500 teachers had their licenses revoked nationwide over a five year period.
Just this month, a social studies teacher at Troy Buchanan High School in Lincoln County was charged with sexual molestation and sexual misconduct involving two female teenage students. The incidents occurred at his home in St. Louis County.
Senator Cunningham disputes the claim that the new law is overkill. "They say I'm trying to kill a gnat with a
bazooka. This is no gnat. It's a monster, and it's growing. When you realize that only one-tenth of these incidents are even reported, it's clear we have a major problem."
The teacher-student communication language was a small part of a much larger bill known as the Amy Hester Student Protection Act. It primarily addressed a need for more communication between school districts regarding teachers who prey on vulnerable students. In a practice known as "passing the trash," problem teachers who are dismissed from one school district move on to another district who have no knowledge of their previous sexual misconduct. The new law frees school districts from liability for sharing employment information.
The bill was named after Amy Hester Surdin, a Missouri woman who was sexually abused by her teacher and coach in junior high school. Surdin says that the issue
isn't just about teachers "sexualizing" relationships with students.
"When teachers want, or try to be a student's substitute parent, they seek to assume influence over the moral and social mores that are the province of the family. Standing up for parents to be privy to any exclusive communication between parents and students puts appropriate boundaries on the relationship. As a parent, I am the first line in my child's life education, not his last."
Senator Cunningham is working with education groups on legislation for the special session which would clarify the new law, yet continue to discourage inappropriate and secretive communications between teachers and students. We encourage you to contact
Senator Cunningham and express support for her efforts to protect our children from sexual predators in the classroom and the locker room. Her office phone number is (573) 751-1186. Her office e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
You can let your own state senator what you think about this issue by using this link:Missouri Senate
You can let your state representative know your views about this subject by using this link:Missouri House
Missouri's classrooms are filled with many very dedicated teachers who care about their students and contribute greatly to their future success. But every effort must be made to weed out the bad apples. The entirety of the new law sponsored by Senator Cunningham does just that.