House approves school safety legislation

Wednesday, February 18, 2009 | 2:39 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY— Missouri school districts could require student uniforms, and it would be harder to sue teachers under legislation passed by the House on Wednesday.

The provisions are part of a broader measure, approved 160-0, that lawmakers hope will improve school safety. Besides school uniforms and lawsuit protections, the legislation restricts but does not legally prohibit the disciplinary spanking of students and requires that any reports of violent behavior be attached to a student's permanent record.

Currently, state law specifically permits St. Louis schools to require their students to wear uniforms. But other school districts also could choose to do so, because dress codes are a matter of local control, said Jim Morris, a spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Rep. Maynard Wallace, R-Thornfield, a former school superintendent, said his legislation is intended to clarify it's OK for schools to require student uniforms or ban certain clothes for security reasons.

"If I were out there in the school administration, you'd bet I'd do it if I thought (it was necessary), but we're just removing any question about whether they can do it or not," he said.

Melanie Adams, a member of the Special Administrative Board that oversees St. Louis schools, said uniforms can improve security and create pride within a school.

"It fosters school spirit and school culture," Adams said. She said uniform decisions are left to the individual schools in St. Louis.

The legislation also restricts lawsuits against teachers, so long as the educator follows the school district's policies. That could cover breaking up fights between students and providing medical care if the school employee is properly trained.

Wallace said he wants school staff to be comfortable doing what is necessary without hesitating or worrying about lawsuits.

Another provision is designed to tighten a Missouri law that lets school districts permit employees to spank students. Lawmakers are concerned the provision could be used to restrict investigations into incidences when a teacher spanks a student with sexual intent.

Under the measure approved Wednesday, a second school employee would need to be present when a student is spanked. It also specifically states that spanking is permissible under state law only if there is no allegation of sexual misconduct.

Legislative staff estimate the school safety bill, which is now headed to the Senate, wouldn't cost the state any money. The House has approved similar legislation in recent years, but the bill has stalled in the Senate.

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