It’s the apple that’s rotten, not the barrel.

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A bill that passed in the Missouri legislature was recently signed into law by Governor Jay Nixon. It has grabbed nationwide attention for educators in the state of Missouri, and not necessarily the kind of attention we hope for.  I tend to stay pretty up to date on many legislative issues that affect education, and was aware of this bill, but became much more involved last week as I was interviewed by both our local media (KQTV2) and by Foxnews.com for stories.  If you ever want to quickly become an expert in something, agree to go on camera, it makes you cram like you would before a very important test.  Before going on any more, let me lay some ground work for those of you unfamiliar with the subject here.

The bill (Senate Bill 54) is also called the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act and additionally creates a task force for the prevention of sexual abuse of children.  Amy Hestir (now 40) was abused by a teacher when she was 12. In summary, the bill requires schools to share information about district employees who are terminated or allowed to resign due to sexual misconduct involving a student.  This part of the bill is not very controversial, in fact, I applaud it.  My heart aches for the pain that must have caused her in life. Nobody can justify those actions. I’m sorry that she suffered through this. Schools (and other employers, for that matter) have become afraid of saying anything about a former employee for fear of a suit from the released employee, many following a policy of only confirming dates of employment.  This bill allows us to share that information, and in my opinion, do what is right for children.  I detest the thought of any educator (or adult for that matter) engaging in that type of behavior with a student/child.

The controversy that has been created lies in a section of the bill, Section 162.069, that states the following:

“By January 1, 2012, every school district must develop a written policy concerning teacher-student communication and employee-student communications. Each policy must include appropriate oral and nonverbal personal communication, which may be combined with sexual harassment policies, and appropriate use of electronic media as described in the act, including social networking sites. 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 nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student. Former student is defined as any person who was at one time a student at the school at which the teacher is employed and who is eighteen years of age or less and who has not graduated.

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By January 1, 2012, each school district must include in its teacher and employee training a component that provides information on identifying signs of sexual abuse in children and of potentially abusive relationships between children and adults, with an emphasis on mandatory reporting. Training must also include an emphasis on the obligation of mandated reporters to report suspected abuse by other mandatory reporters.”

In essence, to combat inappropriate behavior, Senator Cunningham has chosen to attack the media used, not the behavior. In a time when many teachers are working to connect with students in forums that they are comfortable learning with (and to prepare them for the technologically-driven 21st century), teachers are being mandated to cease using any forums that might possibly create an instance where there would be exclusive communication. I am relatively new to some different forms of social media, and the two that are most commonly discussed related to this are Facebook and Twitter. Facebook communication only happens if you choose to “accept” a “friend request”. I have long had a personal policy that I don’t “friend” students (and spend a good deal of time in my office encouraging students that are fighting on Facebook to NOT be friends there, but that’s a different story for a different time). My “friend list” on Facebook generally consists of people I grew up with, went to college with, and a few former students that have been out of school for years (some as many as 18 years). Twitter is generally an open forum in 140 character bites. Direct (or private) messaging is only available if you are being “followed” and you are “following” that account back. I don’t generaly follow student accounts, so again, this shouldn’t be an issue for me. That is not the case for many educators that are using electronic media in very legitimate ways.

Our student government recently started a Twitter account. They follow me to keep up with items that I tweet about (scores of games, upcoming events, etc.) and I followed them back to stay up on what they are sending out as representatives of our school. They had a question the other day and sent me a DM (Direct Message). Under this new law, I would be in violation. Many educators use sites like Blackboard and eCompanion, which allow for online

discussions about class. Students can turn in papers digitally in these platforms and also receive feedback. Anyone that has taken a college class in the last 5 years will tell you that the days of turning assignments in as a hard copy don’t exist any more. Our students need to be familar with this type of interaction and platform to be prepared for continuing their education. Just as a teacher wouldn’t discuss and evaluate a student’s hard copy paper openly in class, a teacher wouldn’t post in an open forum the revisions needed on Blackboard or eCompanion.  There is real value in being able to have a conversation that is between the student and teacher. This law forces districts to create policy that will forbid that.

One of the problems I have with this legislation is that there is an underlying tone to it that assumes that teachers are predators, just waiting to strike if they can find a way to privately communicate with a student. I thought maybe my own personal bias was just reading that in on my own, until I read the following response to an email that a young man sent to Senator Cunningham’s office:

Excerpt from email reply sent to Cameron Carlson by Senator Jane Cunningham’s legislative aide, Sandra Allen, on August 3rd (was posted to the Facebook Page Students, Parents, and Teachers Against MO Senate Bill #54, Sec. 162.069):
 
“First things first – I need you to educate yourself to the magnitude of the sexual abuse of students by educators. It is of epidemic proportions both locally (Missouri) and nationally. Just a quick Google search brings up pages. Unfortunately, this heinous crime has gone grossly underreported because the school districts didn’t want to deal with it – now they have to or they will be held liable and culpable for the future abuses perpetrated by someone they just pass to the next district. Senator Cunningham recognized the need for these types of laws to protect innocent children from being taken advantage of by someone in authority.
 
Second, what I am hearing you say is that the 1st amendment gives educators, who by the way would be the only adults allowed, the right to any all unmonitored private conversations with minor children? If so, I find that extremely unnerving and a lot like the adult child pornography proponents.
No adult – teacher, doctor, police, judge, Senator, Legislative Assistant, mechanic, etc., etc., etc. has the constitutional right to private conversations with children under 18 without a legal guardian and/or parent present or that has not given written permission.
 
I also find it strange that it is the male educators who are the loudest critics – interesting don’t you think? The female educators recognize the need for these types of laws. The ones who have contacted Senator Cunningham have wanted to make sure they stay within the confines of the new law.
 
Sincerely,
Sandy”

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I had to read this response more than once. Did this person really imply that educators are similar to proponents of child pornography? Did she really claim that male educators are the only ones bothered by this law? Finally, does she really think that this law will prevent private conversations between teachers and students? Numerous private conversations happen daily between teachers and students, they are integral to the relationship-building we work so hard to develop. While she claims that teachers are asking for some exclusive right that others don’t have, this law actually makes teachers the ONLY group that would not be able to have this type of communication with students. Parents in your building could privately interact with students electronically, but teachers would not have that same ability. Should youth pastors be prevented from this type of communication with children, after all, there have been cases of abuse in this situation? (Note- I am NOT advocating pastors be grouped in here, only making a point). Should legislators be prevented from responding to a private email from a student? It makes one ask where do we draw the line?

I don’t think this is the end of this issue, I think it will continue to be cussed and discussed, and that’s a good thing. Healthy debate can bring solutions to complex issues. Seeking out the view points of those who disagree with you can be a good thing. My hope is that from this we realize that it’s not the means of communicating that is the problem, it’s the message. Inappropriate conversations or comments are inappropriate in any forum, whether it be by email, a private message, a tweet, a text, a phone call, a note, or a smoke signal. And we should focus on that, the inappropriate behavior. In discussing this with educator and author Todd Whitaker the other day (one of the smartest people I know-and in a Twitter DM no less), he said, “Idiots already know what they do is wrong . . . tough to legislate appropriate behavior with creeps”. Immoral people are in all walks of life, sadly, even in our field. We can’t legislate morality either, as much as we might want to. That being said, we can’t just make the assumption that ALL educators are immoral, to do so is damaging to our profession, and in the long run, to our children. The target should be on the rotten apple, not the barrel holding it.

About Dr. Robert Sigrist

I am a high school assistant principal in St. Joseph, MO, the city where the Pony Express started and Jesse James ended. I’m a big sports geek and love Chiefs’ football, KU basketball, and all Missouri Western State University sports. I am married to my high school sweetheart, Kim, and we are the co-creators of Alex and Alison. I am a proud graduate of Highland Community College (KS) and Missouri Western State University. I received my masters degree in administration from Northwest Missouri State University and my Doctorate from the University of Missouri in 2010.