As the summer draws to an end, parents and students are beginning to prepare for the start of the school year. For many parents, sending their children off to school can be both a joyous and fearful occasion. The worry experienced by parents is fueled, in part, by news headlines of teachers having inappropriate sexual relationships with their students. In order to address these concerns, the Missouri Legislature recently signed into law the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act. This so-called “Facebook Law,” which was named after a student who was sexually abused by her junior high school teacher, regulates communications between teachers and students on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter. State Senator Jane Cunningham, who sponsored the bill, said the purpose of the law is to discourage teachers and students from engaging in exclusive communications with each other through social networking platforms because such contact with each other “is a pathway into sexual misconduct.”
The new law requires school districts to develop a written policy concerning teacher-student and employee-student communications that include guidelines on the appropriate use of electronic media including text messaging and social networking sites. In addition, the new law prohibits teachers from establishing, maintaining, or using a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child’s parents or legal guardian. Finally, the law prohibits teachers from establishing, maintaining, or using a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student.
Passage of the “Facebook Law,” which is believed to be the first of its kind in the country, drew immediate criticism. Opponents argue that the law will cause teachers to communicate less with their students resulting in weaker teacher-student relationships. Opponents also argue that the law chills free speech. However, those in favor of the law insist that it does not restrict speech between educators and students. Rather, the law merely provides transparency to the process by giving parents, guardians, and social administrators access to the websites where teachers and students are communicating with one another.
It remains to be seen how long Missouri’s “Facebook Law” will remain in effect and whether it will prompt other states such as California to adopt similar legislation. Opponents of the law have already started a campaign to repeal the law. The law may also be subject to court challenges on constitutional grounds.
Regardless of whether the “Facebook Law” survives, the reality is that teachers and students are increasingly using social networking sites as a vehicle to communicate with each other. Consequently, school districts should adopt policies and guidelines regarding the appropriate use of social media platforms. This may include deciding whether to allow teachers and students to communicate through social media at all, or to prohibit it altogether. If the district allows such contact, then guidelines should remind teachers and school staff to consider the content on their social media sites including their profile, pictures, and postings on their wall. Anything that they would not feel comfortable sharing in a classroom setting or in the presence of parents, should not be shared with students via social media. Educators should be trained on using social media to foster learning and enhance the educational experience. Finally, educators should be trained about separating their professional from their private life, and they should be reminded that their relationships with students, both in and out of the classroom, must be appropriate and comply with legal and professional standards.