Tuesday, August 2, 2011

SB54 shows that everybody overreacts

Missouri Senate Bill 54 was recently signed into law by Governor Nixon a couple of weeks ago and now all of a sudden people are up in arms about it. It's a perfect example of how the government can do something that sounds good in theory, but application is another issue. It's also a perfect example of people getting all worked up about stuff without reading the fine print.

SB54 is a lengthy bill sponsored by Democratic Senator Jane Cunningham (the same Senator that has been a major proponent of ditching teacher tenure and instituting merit-based pay on a four-tier system) that has many things in there to protect students. Things like more background checks and requiring districts to report sexual abuse allegations within 24 hours after the allegations have been made. It's known as the "Amy Hestir Student Protection Act" after a student that was sexually assaulted by a teacher many, many years ago, most people are jumping to the part of the bill that deals with electronic communication, mainly Facebook, even though it's never mentioned by name in the bill.

Here is what the bill says about teacher-student electronic communication which is what Facebook would be categorized as:

"Every school district shall, by January 1, 2012, promulgate a written policy concerning teacher-student communication and employee-student communication. Such policy shall contain at least the following elements:
Appropriate oral and nonverbal personal communication, which may be combined with or included in any policy on sexual harassment; and
Appropriate use of electronic media such as text messaging and internet sites for both instructional and personal purposes, with an element concerning use of social networking sites no less stringent than the provisions of 2, 3, and 4 of this section."

Ok, here's where it starts to get saucy:

"3) No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a work-related internet site unless such site is available to school administrators and the child's legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian.
4) No teacher shall establish, maintain, or use a nonwork-related internet site which allows exclusive access with a current or former student. Nothing in this subsection shall be construed as prohibiting a teacher from establishing a nonwork-related internet site, provided the site is used in accordance with this section."

The first thing that everybody jumped at was the words "former student." As soon as people started seeing this they freaked out that they wouldn't be able to "friend" students they maybe had in class 10-15 years ago and might even be co-workers with now. The status updates were nuts yesterday, filled with dozens of current teachers talking about no longer being friends with students they may have had years ago and they were going to start unfriending them and so on. If you want to do that, be my guest. But as I said in the headline, it's an overreaction.

Nobody likes to read bills from the General Assembly, which is the combined name for Missouri's House of Representatives and Senate, or our state version of Congress (there's your Government lesson for the day). Heck, even Senators and Reps probably don't like reading this stuff. But to understand things more fully, you have to get in there and read some of the nuts and bolts.

The first part we need to discuss is "exclusive access" which is defined in the bill in the section before the stuff about teacher's setting up the sites (the definitions are part of Section 2). It states "the information on the website is available only to the owner (teacher) and user (student) by mutual explicit consent and where third parties have no access to the information on the website absent an explicit consent agreement with the owner (teacher)." You can have current students or former students as friends on Facebook, you just can't send private messages to them. You can post stuff on their wall, such as "happy birthday" or "good game last night" or anything else that would be deemed socially appropriate there because it's public or "non-exclusive." You just can't put your private stuff in their in-box. That'll get you in trouble in more ways than one.

Secondly, let's address "former student." Contrary to popular belief, it is defined in the bill, it's just not one of the parts that's getting a lot of publicity right now. This is defined as "any person who was at one time a student at the school which the teacher is employed and who is eighteen years of age or less and who has not graduated." So guess what guys. You can keep your friends that you taught if they're over eighteen and graduated. And it also says IS employed, so you're okay if you're in a different district.

Also, let's not forget that it is the individual districts' responsibility to create their own policies. What might be permissible at one district might not be at another. So, you could end up seeing districts creating board policy stating that you won't have any current students on there and to be honest, that's probably the safest thing.

The part that I was beginning to worry about the most was the part about text messaging which has been an overlooked aspect also. As a coach, I have every basketball player's phone number stored in my phone. If I need to contact them, I send out a mass text because that's so much faster and easier than trying to make 30+ phone calls. I'd say most coaches around the state do this. However, under the letter of the law, text messaging a student/athlete would violate the law because text messaging has been lumped in with electronic communication and then you get into the "exclusive access" portion of the bill again because the texts wouldn't be public or going to a parent/guardian. But here's where I hope we as coaches can get around this. There's mention of an "explicit consent agreement with the owner (teacher)" which would be like a contract from a parent giving you consent or permission to send private messages (such as texts) to the student/athlete. Once again though, it all is based on what each individual district wants to create as part of their board policy. My district might just do a blanket policy of zero texts to kids. That would upset me because text messaging is one of the main forms of communication for kids nowadays. It's unfortunate that kids would rather punch up some letters on their phones than hit the numbers and talk to a person directly, but that's the society we live in now. If my district says that's the policy, so be it. I'll abide by it.

I probably have 200 friends on Facebook that were either students of mine at one time or that I coached (I counted 100 and was only in the J's, so I decided it was time to ballpark it). Many of them have graduated and gone on to start their own careers, get married, have families. Some of them are still in school in other districts that I've worked at and I've added them because I still like to follow them, see how they're doing and continue to show them pictures of my gorgeous baby girl. However, I've never allowed a current student/athlete of mine to be included in any of my social networking sites. I've had several students try over the years and I tell them the same thing: "Graduate, and I'll add you." Makes for a very cheap graduation present. I even included it in the syllabus that I would distribute and go over with the students on the first day of the school year. I have nothing to hide, but it just helps keep me safe from kids seeing or reading something that they probably shouldn't.

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