"Facebook Law" drama nears an end

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By Tim Sampson

Missouri News Horizon
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – After a long legislative battle, the issue of regulating online teacher-student communications has now fallen onto Missouri’s individual school district boards.

Late last month, the Missouri State Teachers Association issued its proposed language for new government mandated rules to monitor the ever changing world of online communications in regard to contact with students.

“As schools start coming back into session we’re starting to receive feedback on the draft,” said Todd Fuller, spokesman for MSTA. “So far it’s been pretty positive.”

MSTA’s language is technically just a suggestion for school districts. The new law merely requires that school boards adopt an online communication policy for their district by March 1. Many districts will likely adopt MSTA’s or some other education group’s proposal verbatim, with perhaps some slight changes.

MSTA was at the heart of the controversy surrounding this rule – the so-called “Facebook Rule.” The rule was originally part of the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, which passed the state general assembly in 2011 after years of being rejected.

The Amy Hestir Law is primarily concerned with protecting students from being taken advantage of sexually by a teacher or school employee. It includes rules that require school employees to notify authorities of suspected sexual abuse within 24 hours and makes districts liable for failing to disclose known or suspected sexual impropriety of former employees to other school districts.

But one provision that would have limited all private electronic communications between students and teachers – including communications through social media sites like Facebook – was deemed a step too far by MSTA and other teachers groups. The group filed a lawsuit to overturn the rule, but state lawmakers quickly capitulated during September’s special session and changed the language to make it more relaxed – adopting the so-called “Facebook Fix.”

The Facebook Fix required merely that districts adopt a policy on social media, but not necessarily one that prohibits closed communications.

And the draft language from MSTA that they hope many districts will adopt in coming months reflects that. The policy puts strict teacher conduct guidelines on school sponsored electronic communication systems and requires parental permission for students to used school sponsored forums.

But the MTSA language puts no rules on non-work-related communications.

“The balancing of the individual employee’s Constitutional rights to freedom of speech, association, and religion outweigh the interests of the school district in the non-work-related activities of its employees, subject to conduct and communications already regulated by local, state and federal law,” the policy states.

Fuller said feedback from superintendents on the new draft policy has been positive so far, but that his organizations hope school boards will take a good hard look and customize it to the needs of their districts.

“We recognize that every district is different and there can not be a one size fits all policy,” Fuller said.