UPDATE: Two Missouri teachers associations want clarification on social media bill

Tuesday, August 23, 2011 | 9:14 p.m. CDT; updated 3:39 p.m. CDT, Friday, August 26, 2011

*UPDATE: This story has been updated to include the judges' preliminary decision on the teachers' injunction.

COLUMBIA — Two Missouri teachers' associations — the Missouri State Teachers Association and the Missouri National Education Association — are looking to clarify the language of a bill that could ban some online interaction between teachers and students on social media sites and through other technological means.

Senate Bill 54, also known as the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, broadly includes measures intended to safeguard students from abuse at school. However, confusion and concern about a section addressing social media and technology has caused a debate about teacher-student communication limitations.

Last week, the Missouri State Teachers Association filed suit against the state, citing the bill's vague language and inconsistent interpretations regarding online communication as violations of the First and Fourteenth amendments. A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday morning in Cole County Circuit Court.

Todd Fuller, communications director of the Missouri State Teachers Association, said the group seeks an injunction to halt the implementation of the relevant part of the bill. This is the section that appears to prohibit private interaction between students and teachers via social media and other means of electronic communication such as texting.

Depending on what the judge decides, the case could go to a courtroom this fall to resolve the language issues. *On Wednesday, Fuller said the judge chose to take the injunction "under advisement."

However, members at the Missouri National Education Association think there is a better and faster way to fix the section in question by including it in the Sept. 6 special session of the Missouri General Assembly, said DeeAnn Aull, assistant executive director of the Missouri NEA. 

On Tuesday, the group held a joint conference call with Kit Crancer, chief of staff for state Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, who proposed Senate Bill 54 this year.

According to a news release from the Missouri NEA, the call was aimed at addressing confusion around the bill, and Missouri NEA members discussed the possibility of writing a "clean-up" bill to clarify the section's language.

Missouri NEA Legislative Director Otto Fajen explained the clean-up bill would involve working with Cunningham and state Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, to redraft the section with language approved by both educators and legislators alike.

"Our goal is to have enough consensus between the education community and key legislators to address this issue in special session," Fajen said. "The ball is in our court to bring a proposal to the legislators."

The schedule for September's special session is set, but Fajen said the Missouri NEA hopes to have a new draft of the bill's section to legislators this week so it can request that it be heard at the special session.

As part of the bill, school districts are required to write new policies addressing student-teacher online communication by Jan. 1. The Columbia School Board plans to take up the matter next month.

Fuller said the Jan. 1 deadline makes clarification time-sensitive. His concern is that unless the section's language is addressed in special session or in court, districts will have to write new guidelines based on unclear language.

If the issue is not heard during the September special session, only another special session later in the fall could be called or the issue will have to wait until the regular legislative session in January.

Despite different approaches, both organizations look to make similar changes to the section, Fuller said.

But what's most important, Aull said, is clarifying the bill's language accurately, quickly and comprehensively.

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mildred fowler August 24, 2011 | 4:58 a.m.

As such Thomas is now suing the state over the law that limits teacher-student interactions online.

(Report Comment)
Shaina Cavazos August 24, 2011 | 4:45 p.m.

This update from the St. Louis Beacon says the bill might be discussed at an upcoming special session. It also gives a lot of good background about Senate Bill 54 and how Missouri residents and organizations are taking action.

—Shaina Cavazos, Columbia Missourian

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