Missouri Facebook Law: why can’t teachers and students be friends?

Christina Thomas and the Missouri Teachers Association are contesting The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act. But what's behind the legislation?

Kelley McCall/AP/File
Jay Nixon, Governor of Missouri, signed the 'Amy Hestir Student Protection Act' on July 14.

Signed by Missouri governor Jay Nixon on July 14, and effective Aug. 28, The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act would place sanctions on social media communication between teachers and students in an effort to restrict opportunities for "sexual misconduct." But the Missouri Teachers Association filed a suit against the state on Aug. 19 and proclaimed the measure deeply unfair.

The text under scrutiny states that "teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child’s legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a non-work-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student."

Christina Thomas, a Ladue School District teacher who spearheaded the movement, states that the "regulation violates the First and 14th Amendments." And there’s another, more personal reason for her anger: Thomas claims that a section of the law would "prohibit her from communication with her own child."

The case brings up an interesting question: are there parts of youthful development in which teachers shouldn’t have a role? For example, in light of Patti M. Valkenburg and Jochen Peter’s 2006 study, which found that "adolescents use social networking sites as a way to gauge peer opinions about themselves, which may consequently influence identity formation," is it safe to leave students to the world of gossip without older voices to help guide them?

Jesse Dwyer, who taught writing at a New Hampshire college, insists in a blog that since teachers are expected to be public figures, and since their audience is "by definition impressionable," a teacher's duty to young minds is "especially important on Facebook where people are more connected and sharing more often."

In an article for Edutopia, Judith Taack Lanier seems to agree. She writes that the role of the teacher has evolved to become one of "designing and guiding students through engaging learning opportunities." The result, she says, "is that the abstract, inert knowledge that students used to memorize from dusty textbooks comes alive as they participate in the creation and extension of new knowledge."

Drawing the line on where formal education ends is increasingly difficult, but it’s important to remember that there is a reason the line exists. Impetus for the 'Facebook Law' is still fresh in many people's memory. Missouri teacher Amy Jackson was arrested after a relationship with a student came to light in July, an affair reportedly orchestrated on Facebook. And in May, a substitute teacher in northern New Jersey was arrested after impersonating a student and engaging in explicit conversation with other pupils on the social networking site.

RELATED: Will Missouri 'Facebook Law' spook teachers away from social media?

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