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New Missouri 'Facebook bill': Let school districts make their own rules

The Missouri legislature wants to limit 'improper communications' between students and teachers, but its first 'Facebook law' was blocked by the courts. Now, it's trying a toned-down version.

By Staff writer / September 8, 2011

Alana Maddock, nurse and cheerleader coach at East Middle School, Joplin, Mo, used Facebook to locate students after the tornado destroyed several schools and much of Joplin on May 22. Maddock won't be able to communicate with students after a law was passed in Missouri that prohibits teachers from contacting students on Facebook.

Mike Gullett/AP

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Lawmakers are considering a simplified version of Missouri’s so-called “Facebook law,” which was blocked last month by a state judge for being too broad in its restriction of social media contact between teachers and students.

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The new version would drop controversial requirements, such as the ban on teachers using websites that enabled “exclusive access” between a staff member and a student. The provision would have prevented students and teachers from "friending" each other on Facebook, because communication between "friends" is private.

Instead, the revised bill would leave it up to districts to come up with policies to “prevent improper communications” between school employees and students, including on electronic media. It also gives districts an extended deadline – March 1, instead of Jan. 1 – to adopt the new policies.

The original social-media restrictions, which were a section of the broader Amy Hestir Student Protection Act targeting sexual abuse, were so broad and vague that they would have prevented even normal contact between a student and his or her own parent, if the parent was a teacher, free-speech advocates and educators say.

It’s an issue that will continue to play out nationwide as social media becomes increasingly embedded in people’s lives. Just recently, Dayton (Ohio) Public Schools set a policy restricting texting and social-media contact between teachers and students, including “friending” on Facebook.

Several education groups in Missouri support the idea of having individual school districts create their own policies.

“In a state as diverse as Missouri ... it’s nearly impossible to draft a state policy that covers all the bases,” says DeeAnn Aull, a spokeswoman for the Missouri National Education Association in Jefferson City.

In rural counties, students often interact with teachers at church and scout meetings, creating a very different type of relationship than urban students have with teachers they see only at school. And the level of technology use varies greatly, too.

Because social media sites and related school policies are still relatively new, “local variation is a very good thing; different districts can try different things and we can see what works,” says Chad Flanders, an assistant law professor at St. Louis University.

But not everyone agrees that it’s wise to ask local school boards to take up the task.

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