A Missouri law: Well-intentioned but flawed

Lawmaking needs to be based on research so that, when we’re protecting children, we’re not hurting their futures.

By Anne Collier

Missouri is the “11th worst state in the nation for teachers losing their license for sexual misconduct,” State Sen. Jane Cunningham told my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid in an interview for CNET. So she sponsored a new law aimed at protecting students from such misconduct. It’s great the law makes it much harder to “pass the trash,” a term that Senator Cunningham explained refers to teachers fired for sexual misconduct who get hired by other districts to whom their misconduct wasn’t disclosed by the firing district, possibly for fear of lawsuits. Under the new law, even allegations against a teacher being fired for that reason have to be disclosed. The law is flawed, however, where it refers to “electronic” communications.

The coverage of this story has been a bit misleading in focusing on teachers’ use of Facebook. Here’s all that the brief passage in Missouri’s long Amy Hestir Student Protection Act says about “electronic media … including social networking sites”: “Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and parents, or have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student.” By “exclusive access” the bill means private communication between a teacher and a student via email, text messaging, private chat, etc., as well as via social network sites.

Where it’s flawed

The flaw is at least two-fold: First, the vast majority of teachers would never engage in sexual misconduct with students, so this part of the law penalizes the majority by prohibiting private use of all these communications tools – including all the beneficial uses. Second, there are many cases where public communication between a student and a teacher would be inappropriate.

Missouri 8th-grade teacher Randy Turner told NPR that, even though he’s an “older teacher,” he’s found real value in being available to his students on Facebook for school-related issues. Sometimes a student wants to ask a question about an assignment or a grade or, as Mr. Turner pointed out, send a first draft to see if he or she was “on the right track.” Sometimes, too, there’s a personal issue – including as Larry brought up with Senator Cunningham, a sexually abusive parent or parent’s partner – when a teacher is someone a child can trust. Turner said he felt this part of the legislation does little to protect and a lot to chill positive uses of electronic media in and concerning school. The ACLU told Larry the same.

Another real concern: legislation that’s not grounded in research or even a basic understanding of how digital media are used.

“I find this Missouri law a real setback in using social media for learning,” Erin Reilly, research director at University of Southern California’s New Media Literacies Project, emailed me. “My ‘favorite’ line” [in the NPR story] is [that] ‘important communication should not happen on Twitter.'”

Law based on misunderstanding?

That line was from a Missouri state representative sounding like a lot of people who haven’t looked into Twitter much. It seems so many people of my generation assume social media use is, at best, inconsequential and a waste of time, when that use is actually highly individual and, to many individuals of all ages, meaningful, enriching, and educational (as well as a distraction sometimes). The thing is, it’s very hard accurately to generalize about Internet use for the very reason that so many aspects of human life happen or appear on it: communication, socializing, research, entertainment, education, etc. (see “Why a living Internet?”). Research at the Harvard School of Education shows this. That their Internet use is inconsequential, if not destructive, and there’s little they can do about it, is the very message we’re sending our children and writing into legislation (see this). Lawmakers are not educating themselves on the different norms of [online] communities,” Reilly added. “They’re cutting off opportunities too early in this field.”

So far the focus of legislators has been too much on the medium as the problem instead of the intent and behavior expressed through it. Do we penalize the communications tool or the communicator when the communication is criminal? Instead of new legislation concerning social media, it would be better for existing laws already focused on criminal activity to be updated to include digital media as additional environments and communications tools used by criminals – updates written by people who’ve factored in both the youth-online-risk and social-media bodies of research – such as this MIT Press book representing the work of 22 researchers. We also need to see school policy and employment contracts updated to embrace constructive use of new tools. Teacher Randy Turner pointed out to NPR, for example, that every Missouri teacher has a morals clause in his or her employment contract, and he feels that’s the logical place for inappropriate conduct to be addressed.

Protect kids without hurting their futures

There’s already enough fear of new media among educators – fear that’s hampering 21st-century learning and education reform. No state – or country, for that matter – can afford to pass legislation that has a chilling effect on using new media in school. As filmmaker and founder of the Lucas Educational Foundation told Congress in June, based on Commerce Department research, “out of fifty-five industries, education is dead last in its use of technology” and, according to a video infographic co-created by education professor Scott McLeod at Iowa State University, “today’s classroom looks a lot like one from 1890, but it’s 2011.”

Meanwhile, “today’s students desperately want to use technology and the Internet for their learning,” stated George Lucas in his written testimony to Congress. “It is ironic that nearly all students participate in [digital media] outside of school – talking on cellphones, playing videogames, or socializing via Facebook – but many are disconnected from the educational benefits of telecommunications during the school day. Students tell us that technology provides the kind of choice and engagement that would keep them in school and motivate them to go on to higher levels of learning.”

It’s imperative – and increasingly urgent – that legislation designed to protect young Net users is written in a way that it doesn’t hurt their futures – or the relevance and currency of their education. WHEN will legislators start doing their homework and make this connection?

Related links

* “Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade” in a New York Times blog
* “50 Reasons to Invite Facebook Into Your Classroom” in KQUED’s Mindshift blog
*“Do no harm: Message to educators, parents,” “How teachers Facebook & tweet for students,” and “Social media in the classroom: +1 or -1?” at NetFamilyNews

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