Missouri is in the process of implementing a particularly bad law, forbidding contact on social networks between teachers and students. Formally, this is Missouri Senate Bill 54, the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act. The aim is laudable: protect vulnerable kids from predacious educators. Unfortunately, the law as written, and as being implemented by the school districts, is so problem-ridden that it does way more harm that good.
Here is a typical comment on implementation:
The Fort Zumwalt School District revised its electronic communications policy in June. “Basically our policy says that our teachers cannot have private conversations on a social network site,” said Superintendent Bernard DuBray. “You can have students on Facebook and other sites, but you don’t have a private conversation on them.”
Any communications between students and teachers has to be open and available to parents and administrators, he said.
The law prohibits social networking contact between students, past and present, and teachers. Here are just a few reasons why it is a bad law.
Teachers play a critically important role in the lives of many students. Often, kids will talk to teachers about things that they will not discuss with their parents. For instance, one of my high school friends trusted one of her teachers enough to have frank dialogs about sexual identity and pre-marital sex. These conversations happen in ways that are comfortable for the student. Most important, these conversations take place in private. If a student is comfortable talking on Facebook or via text messages, blocking that channel discourages the communication. I know a family of children suffering in an abusive home situation. (Yes, the local authorities are aware.) Can you imagine any of these kids talking to a teacher about it if the conversation was also open to the parents?
This law sends a whole host of bad messages to students. It tells them that, as a group, teachers are untrustworthy. It tells students that they are not skillful enough to judge safe versus unsafe private communication with teachers. It tells kids that they cannot learn about safe social networking with their teachers, though other adults are OK. It tells them that lawmakers and school districts can protect them in their on-line activities. None of these messages are true.
The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act overreaches any bounds of sanity. It forbids me, as a grey-bearded computer engineer, from having a private conversation on LinkedIn, a social networking site geared towards professional careers, with my high school physics teacher. It forbids a student from sending a text message to a teacher, even one saying, “Caught in traffic. Will be 5 minutes late. Don’t let the field trip bus leave.” It forbids a teacher from responding via text message, “OK.”
As adults, we certainly need to keep our kids safe. We do that by teaching them good judgement and empowering them to practice that judgement in reasonably safe venues. We encourage our children to grow into independent adults who can protect themselves. We fail completely with bad laws like the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act.