As they prepare lesson plans for the fall, teachers across Missouri have an extra chore before the new school year begins: purging their Facebook friend lists to comply with a new state law that limits their contact with students on social networks.
The law was proposed after an Associated Press investigation found 87 Missouri teachers had lost their licenses between 2001 and 2005 because of sexual misconduct, some of which involved exchanging explicit online messages with students.
But many teachers are protesting the new restrictions, complaining the law will hurt their ability to keep in touch with students, whether for classroom purposes, personal problems, or even emergencies.
The new law forbids teachers from having “exclusive access” online with current students or former students who remain minors, meaning any contact on Facebook or other sites must be done in public rather than through private messages.
Lucinda Lawson, an English teacher at Hartville High School in southern Missouri, expects to purge nearly 80 current and former students from her Facebook account, and she worries that doing so could leave some students vulnerable.
Private messages give “truly supportive teachers the chance to get help for them when they’re in dangerous or compromising situations,” Lawson said.
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Lawson once called a state child-abuse hotline after a private online conversation revealed dangerous drug use by a student’s adult family member. She encouraged a pregnant teen to remain in school and helped the girl tell her parents. Another student confided that his attendance woes and classroom struggles were caused by the financial and emotional stress of caring for a mentally ill parent.
Lawson has no qualms with other provisions in the law to monitor teachers accused of sexual misconduct, such as conducting annual criminal background checks and requiring districts to share information about employees who are fired or resign in sex-abuse cases.
Still, she says, teachers often use Facebook and other online forums for legitimate educational purposes—and to help students with personal troubles they might not be willing to discuss in more public settings.