UPDATE: Lawmakers, educators on board with fresh Facebook bill

Wednesday, September 7, 2011 | 5:58 p.m. CDT; updated 7:38 a.m. CDT, Thursday, September 8, 2011

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; it will now be sent to the full Senate for debate.

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.

Scott Holste, a spokesman for the governor, said Nixon does not intend to expand his call. 

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

Earlier this summer, the teachers association filed a lawsuit against the law, charging that it violates teachers' First Amendment rights and too vague for teachers to "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 and broadens the measure to apply 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, the teachers association's government relations director. "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 were 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.

Thomas Wright, school resource officer in the Eldon School District, investigates sexual misconduct between teachers and students in that district. At Wednesday's hearing, Wright gave examples of coaches and teachers reported for sexual misconduct, adding that in his experience, inappropriate conduct was initiated through text messaging or 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."

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