Legislators to review teacher-student communication part of new law

Friday, August 26, 2011 | 6:43 p.m. CDT; updated 9:13 p.m. CDT, Friday, August 26, 2011

COLUMBIA — A section of Senate Bill 54 intended to limit private teacher-student communication online is set to be reviewed by legislators next month.

A release from the office of Gov. Jay Nixon Friday said the issue will be heard at the Sept. 6 special session of the Missouri General Assembly.

Two Missouri teachers associations — the Missouri State Teachers Association and the Missouri National Education Association — have been working on ways to clarify the section. The groups say it is too restrictive of teacher-student communication.

On Aug. 19, 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.

At a hearing Wednesday, Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem took the issue under advisement. In a ruling Friday morning, he issued a preliminary injunction, a Missouri State Teachers Association release said.

The injunction blocks the part of the bill that generally restricts teachers from privately interacting with students on social media websites and through other technological means such as texting.

"(The law) clearly prohibits communication between family members and their teacher-parents using these types of sites," Beetem said in his ruling. "The court finds that the statute would have a chilling effect on speech."

The injunction is effective for 180 days and will expire Feb. 20. It allows for a trial before the statute is implemented, the teachers association's release said.

"This gives everyone time to debate and discuss the issue to come to a proper resolution rather than rushing to piece together language that doesn't resolve the concerns of educators or allow time for teacher input," Gail McCray, legal counsel for the Missouri State Teachers Association, said in the association's release.

Senate Bill 54, also known as the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, is aimed at protecting children from abuse at school and, except for the part in question, will take effect Sunday. In a release from the governor's office, Nixon agreed the section about electronic communication has caused considerable confusion among students and teachers.

"In a digital world, we must recognize that social media can be an important tool for teaching and learning," Nixon said in his release. "At the same time, we must be vigilant about threats posed to students through the Internet and other means."

Otto Fajen, legislative director for the Missouri National Education Association, said he's glad the court, governor and legislators agree the issue needs to be revisited.

"The injunction really emphasizes that there was a need to clarify the concerns sooner rather than later, and a special session will be the first opportunity to address this issue from a legislative standpoint," Fajen said.

Todd Fuller, communications director for the Missouri State Teachers Association, said the most important step for the group is to educate districts about how social media and technology can be used positively in the classroom before shaping electronic communication policies.

"This entire process has sparked a dialogue on how technology is being used in the classroom," Fuller said. "Not only in Missouri, but nationwide."

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