Lawmakers, educators on board with fresh Facebook bill
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Lawmakers, educators on board with fresh Facebook bill

Date: September 7, 2011
By: Stephanie Ebbs and Mariel Seidman-Gati
State Capitol Bureau
Links: Senate Bill 54

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's contested "Facebook law" got a makeover from legislators and education groups Wednesday when they unanimously agreed to have local districts create their own policies regarding teachers' communication with students via Facebook, texting and other private means.

The Senate Education Committee voted 8-0 in favor of the bill's new wording, sending it to the full Senate.

However, the measure goes beyond the specific special session call of Gov. Jay Nixon, who limited the legislature to considering a simple repeal of the social media restriction.

Governor spokesman Scott Holste said Nixon does not intend to expand his call. 

Represenatatives from state education groups, including the Missouri State Teacher's Association, Missouri School Board Association and Missouri National Education Association, spoke in favor of the revisions at Wednesday's hearing.

Earlier this summer, MSTA filed a lawsuit against the law charging it violates First Amendment rights of teachers. The lawsuit describes the law as being "so vague and overbroad that the Plaintiffs cannot know with confidence what conduct is permitted."

"The only communication prohibited in Senate Bill 54 was hidden communication between a teacher and student," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County. Cunningham met with education organizations earlier this summer to address their concerns and amend the bill.

The amended wording requires local school districts to create their own policies regarding electronic communication by March 1. It also broadens the wording to apply not just to teachers but to all school staff.

"Everybody wants to make sure our students are protected and that they have a safe environment to be in when they're in our school districts," said Mike Wood, MSTA government relations director. "And we think this new language accomplishes that by giving the control back to the local districts and not putting undue restrictions on policies that school districts may develop."

Cunningham said her efforts on this issue had been prompted several years ago by a study on sexual misconduct between teachers and students in the U.S.

"We found that Missouri is one of the worst states in the nation for educators having their license revoked for sexual misconduct," Cunningham said.

School resource officer for Eldon School District Thomas Wright said he investigates sexual misconduct between teachers and students. At the hearing, he gave examples of coaches and teachers who were reported for sexual misconduct but were only asked to resign, subsequently gaining new employment in other school districts. Wright said in his experience, inappropriate contact was initiated through text messaging or other social media.

"I'm very happy to know that there was a consensus," Wright said. "Everyone came together to finally put the language in needed to put the districts back in charge of local control over this particular issue regarding social media. I think that in their hands they'll be very capable to recognize each individual situation and address those accordingly."

The measure now heads to the full Senate for debate.

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