The state of Missouri recently made headlines when the legislature passed a law into effect banning teachers from having contact with students via social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Missouri Senate Bill 54, aka the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, says that “Teachers cannot establish, maintain or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a non-work related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student.”
Initially, the law reads as though the networking simply needs to be public and accessible by all so that parents and administrators can properly monitor it. That seems a reasonable enough request, at first. My last year as a full-time teacher, I created a blog to post our daily assignments and agendas with links to things we had discussed in class. The blog was part of a free service to educators called Edublogs and my site was open and public, requiring no friendships or connections. I also created a Twitter page for much of the same reasons after a fellow teacher presented it to us as a useful classroom tool at a staff development meeting. My Twitter experiment was an ultimate flop, but at the time, we were instructed to protect our tweets so that our classroom discussions would not be broadcast to the world – for the protection of the students, of course. According to Missouri law though, those actions would now be a crime. So the rule is to make it public and accessible, right? Not so fast.
The second part of the law is where things really get a bit fuzzy and controversial: “Teachers cannot have a non-work related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student.” Does that mean that teachers cannot have a Twitter page at all, or does it mean that they cannot follow, or be followed by, students? How are they planning to police this?
Even more surprising is the part where the law specifies regulation against friendships with former students. By that standard, my Facebook friendship with my former students from almost ten years ago is illegal. Apparently, it does not matter that she is now 22 years old, married, pregnant and a legally recognized adult who operated the guestbook table at my wedding. Hundreds of my former students are now in college and they frequently contact me to proofread their papers for class. In total, I am currently Facebook friends with roughly 400 of the 1200 students I taught in my career, most of who are out of high school and at least 18 years of age.
That does not even count those who are following me on Twitter either. According to Missouri law, I am guilty of nearly 400 counts of “inappropriate” social networking friendships, and Missouri is not alone. Ohio and Massachusetts, for example, have previously passed similar legislation banning these connections. So why is everyone so scared? If memory serves me correctly, the type of teacher/student abuse they are so concerned with has been popping up in the news for decades now – long before the widespread use of social media. Do not forget that it is not always the teacher at fault either. I personally know of several cases where the student was the perpetrator who actively pursued, or even stalked, the teacher against their will. Will taking away these outlets prevent abuse of a student or a teacher? I hardly think so, and writing a law that assumes the teacher has some sort of lewd intent is both insulting to the profession and ignorant of the legislatures.
Educators are supposed to be pioneers in their field, yet the majority do not know how to use social media to their advantage. Most do not have a LinkedIn profile, Twitter, or blog, have no concept of social networking, and are woefully ignorant on how to use emerging technology in the classroom. With today’s emerging and rapidly changing social media, it is imperative that teachers not only have access to it, but that they also teach students how to use it responsibly. I know from experience that parents rarely take the time to examine their child’s Facebook pages, and many are not even aware that their child has an online profile at all. I once caught a student having cybersex on a school computer using social media and the parent accused me of making it up. She argued that her darling daughter could not possibly know anything about that or have an online profile or else she would know about it. She was wrong. Nevertheless, social media is not going anywhere. In fact, it is growing at an exponential rate and both students and teachers need instruction on how to use all of this technology responsibly.
One school district, however, dares to challenge this type of thinking. Richardson ISD recently decided to lift their ban on cell phone use in schools. Their decision to permit silent usage in between classes and at lunch is not without restrictions, but is still a step in the right direction to teaching students how to use technology responsibly. Allowing students access to social media on campus in a time when states are outlawing any interaction at all seems almost radical, but it is refreshing to know that some administrators are forward thinking enough to see the value in teaching social media responsibility.