COLUMBIA — Kari Schuster thinks a new Missouri law banning teachers from communicating privately with students through social media has problems.
Schuster, who teaches sixth grade at Smithton Middle School, said she has a colleague who is worried she'll have to "de-friend" her daughter on Facebook because the girl is also a public school student.
"It’s a few of the bad teachers out there whom people should be concerned about," said Schuster, president of the Columbia Missouri State Teachers Association. "Social networking is a great way for teachers to contact students."
The law, which takes effect Aug. 28, doesn't ban public school teachers from having connections with students on social media such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. Rather, it forbids private interactions between teachers and students, and it requires school districts to come up with written policies on social media by Jan. 1, 2012.
In September, the Columbia School Board will take up revising its current policy after it gets some guidance from the Missouri School Boards' Association, said Michelle Baumstark, community relations coordinator for the district.
Meanwhile, some Columbia teachers and administrators are concerned the law will limit legitimate communication and sow confusion among educators.
Issue precedes social media
Mark Maus, principal of Rock Bridge High School, said that when he first read about the new law, he questioned the motivations behind it. If social media had caused an increase in sexual misconduct between teachers and students, it would have been understandable, he said.
“I personally have not seen an increase in (sexual misconduct)," said Maus, who has been in public school education for 12 years. "I don’t know nationwide if that’s true or not or if it’s in the state of Missouri that there has been an increase of student-teachers or student-adult relationships."
State Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, proposed the law after an Associated Press investigation found 87 Missouri teachers between 2001 and 2005 had lost their licenses because of sexual misconduct. Some of the misconduct involved exchanging explicit online messages with students.
State lawmakers passed the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act in May, and Gov. Jay Nixon signed it into law last month. It is named after a Missouri woman who testified to being manipulated into a sexual relationship with a teacher while in junior high.
“If that’s the reason, then I can understand it," Maus said. "But if this is for one case, I don’t agree with it because that was probably going to happen whether the technology was there or not.”
He thinks social media have positives for public school instruction. He said it creates another avenue for communication.
“Class schedules, exam schedules, helping (study) pages can be posted on Facebook,” he said.
“We just had one of our graduates pass away, and how we got the information passed from student to student was all through Facebook,” Maus said.
Carol Bo Sun of Columbia died last week of the rare, genetic Moyamoya Disease. His Facebook profile was filled with condolences from friends and teachers from Rock Bridge, who heard about his condition through Sun’s Facebook page.
“There are so many positive way to use Facebook,” Maus said.
Inappropriate behavior existed before cell phones and computers, he said. "I hate blaming technology for (it),” Maus said.
Teachers are part of community, too
Matt Dingler, who teaches social studies at Rock Bridge, has been using Facebook since 2004. Like Maus, he said he understands the intention behind the law.
"But I think this is made by some people who don’t understand where our lives are going,” Dingler said. “Perhaps even in two years, social networking will be not a new thing; most people will have social networking on their cell phone.”
It is also important to realize that teachers are community members who have lives outside the classroom, he said.
“For instance, another use of my half of Facebook is for a recreational sports team that is associated with community, so I need to get ahold of those players,” Dingler said.
Many other appropriate uses for Facebook relationships between teachers and students exist, he said, such as connecting through religious affiliation or community organizations.
Law seen as good protection
Bernard Solomon, principal of Lange Middle School, sees the law as a good move for the state.
“I think the intention is good to provide protection for kids and teachers as well to make sure it doesn’t create a greater opportunity for people to do some unethical thing,” Solomon said.
“I don’t think it will discourage teachers from interacting because most teachers are pretty good about finding ways to interact with students to build appropriate relationships,” Solomon said. “Social networking isn’t the only way to communicate with students.”
The district does have one substitute for social media. “Our school district has had a discussion board called ‘ANGEL’ for last four years,”Schuster said. “It’s public, and it’s been successful.”
ANGEL is a web-based environment where students can go to find their teachers for discussion and questions, Schuster said. Students can also submit homework through ANGEL, which stands for A New Global Environment for Learning.
Not meant to curb social media use
Cunningham, who championed the law, said its purpose is not to discourage teachers from using social media.
“There is only one very limited prohibition, and that is hidden communication between an educator and a student that is not available to be monitored by third parties such as parents or school personnel,” Cunningham said.
Maus said he doesn't think the senator's intention was to discourage the use of social media.
“But I think the perception by a lot of teachers will be ‘I’m just going to get away from it. I thought it was an excellent tool to use, but I don’t want to get caught and be in a trouble,'" he said.
“I don’t know if this will make teachers to use this correctly,” Maus said. “If someone is going to make a bad decision, then they will make a bad decision.”
New policy under construction
Baumstark said the current policy in Columbia broadly addresses appropriate relationships between teachers and students.
She said the Board of Education Policy Committee had an extensive discussion about social media policy before tweaking it in January.
In May, the district prohibited student use of social media sites such as Facebook during school hours.
"Certainly we did spend some time this past school year talking about this exact issue, and our board voted not to specifically include Facebook," Baumstark said. "So, we have to go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate that, through the policy committee, as a result of this legislation."
"I think we always have to keep in mind that regardless of whether or not it's through technology or face to face or in any other communication method, it's important to make sure the relationship between students and teachers is appropriate," she said. "That's the key point."