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Teacher's Group Files Suit Over Social Media Law

The law's author and sponsor, Creve Coeur area State Senator Jane Cunningham calls the suit "hypocritical".

Gov. Jay Nixon and Attorney General Chris Koster are defendants in the lawsuit. Town and Country-Manchester Patch originally reported otherwise. We are sorry for the error.

The Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) filed suit against the state Friday to put the breaks on a portion of a law set to go into effect which critics say puts a cramp on how educators can use social media to communicate with students.

Senate Bill 54, also known as the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, was sponsored by Missouri State Senator Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, who represents parts of Creve Coeur. A main thrust of the bill was to make the law more clear about a school district's responsibilities when dealing with teachers accused of sexual misconduct. For years, Cunningham, a former Ladue school board member, has bemoaned a practice she's described as "passing the trash," as teachers accused of misconduct would float from one school district to another.

But social media proponents and teachers from to Ladue are now voicing their concerns over fears that the component of the bill which seeks to ban private messages between educators and students is going too far.

“My own children attend this school, and the way the bill is written, I cannot even become their friend on Facebook," Journalism Teacher Jill Proehl said. "My first duty as a parent is to defend my children in their usage of electronic media. By this bill, I cannot even do that.”

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"What we've heard and found as our members are starting to understand the implications and ramifications of the bill, there are far more scenarios and ways it affects teachers than anyone thought before," said Todd Fuller, MSTA's Communications Director. "Then once we heard from our teachers, we realized that it's a vague section of the bill. It's confusing and frustrating and something needs to be done."

Fuller said the first thing MSTA wants is some type of injunction to stop the bill from moving forward until it's determined by a court if it is constitutional or not.

"When you look at the language itself, that sounds fine, and it is. But what happened is that as the bill went on and when it tried to be more specific and explain what teachers could and couldn't do, it then got more confusing," Fuller said.

When reached Friday, Senator Cunningham said she had not read the suit and was not notified by the MSTA. She said she thought the suit was hypocritical, considering the MSTA and other teachers groups helped craft the legislation and get it passed without opposition in the House and State Senate.

Cunningham repeated assertions she's made in other media interviews, that nothing in the bill limits communication between teachers and students, as long as a third party has access to the content. She described scenarios which have unfolded in districts where conversations which started out as innocent discussions about class assignments between a teacher and student, have later escalated into sexual relationships.

Fuller countered that the responsibility for actually authoring the legislation and understanding the impact ultimately falls on lawmakers like Cunningham, and that the was filed after union members requested it.

The lawsuit, filed Friday afternoon, names Missouri Governor Jay Nixon and Attorney General Chris Koster as defendants.

The law is scheduled to take effect Aug. 28. Fuller said that after receiving calls from teachers and other school staff members across the state, there is too much confusion about the law and districts are scrambling to get policies in place.

However, Fuller hopes to have an injunction by the court by Aug. 28.

"If that doesn't happen, as districts are putting policies in place, we're hoping that there will be some kind of judgement before Jan. 1," Fuller said.

MSTA represents about 44,000 Missouri teachers and school employees. Fuller said he's also learned that the law, although it mentions teachers, affects additional school employees, too.

"And that's another confusing part of the bill. We have bus drivers asking, 'Does this affect me?' and the assumption is, based on that we've heard from legislators, is 'Yeah, it does,' even though it's not clear.

Scott Holste, spokesperson for Governor Jay Nixon, told Patch Friday afternoon that presently, the governor's office declined to comment on the suit.

Local Editor James Baer also contributed to this report

Correction: An earlier version described the Governor and Attorney General as plaintiffs in the case when they are, in fact defendants. We apologize for the error.

David Chiles August 20, 2011 at 04:34 PM
Teachers who want to be friends with their students should not be teachers, it's bad netiquette, http://www.networketiquette.net The Missouri legislature has decided the role teachers should play in their students netiquette development and it's not as a friend, it's as a teacher.

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