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New Missouri Law Bans 'Exclusive' Online Contact Between Teachers, Students

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A controversial new law in Missouri designed to protect students from sexual misconduct bans direct contact between educators and students on social networking websites, but has prompted criticism from those who say it goes too far in its effort to clearly define digital boundaries. 

Senate Bill 54, also known as the "Amy Hestir Student Protection Act," was signed into law on July 14 by Gov. Jay Nixon. 

The law requires state school districts to report allegations of sexual abuse to authorities within 24 hours, and holds those districts liable if they fail to disclose suspected or known abuse by past employees. 

It also bans registered sex offenders from serving on local school boards and strengthens criminal background checks on school bus drivers. 

But one provision of the bill -- section 160.069 -- also prohibits teachers in elementary, middle or high schools from establishing, maintaining or using a "work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child's legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian," effective Jan. 1. 

"Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student," the new law reads. 

The new law is believed to be the first of its kind nationwide. Other states and school districts have only recently formed guidelines and policies on student-teacher online interaction. 

In Massachusetts, some districts have adopted a model by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees that bans "improper fraternization" via Internet and telephone. 

Elsewhere, teachers in several districts in Toledo, Ohio, have been told they can communicate with students when it directly relates to school matters. But some teachers say Missouri's approach, although well-intended, is heavy-handed and will ultimately hurt students by restricting access to educators. 

"Throwing the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to social networking is bad policy," said Todd Fuller, spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association, which represents 44,000 members statewide. "There's so much gray area in this bill that it's difficult for us to define them," Fuller said. 

MSTA officials have recently received calls from educators on an "hourly" basis regarding the provision. Some callers have inquired about potential ramifications of the social networking clause, while others are concerned about breaking the new law unwittingly. 

"What happens if I use a third-party website to communicate with students?" Fuller said, mimicking an educator. "That's not public. There are lots of elements beyond Facebook that are part of social networking that I don't think this bill takes into account." 

State Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, sponsor of the bill, told FoxNews.com that the social networking provision bans solely "exclusive access" between a teacher and a student. 

"We are in no way trying to stop communication between educators and students," Cunningham said Monday. "We are allowing school districts to form their own policy with this and to police themselves. The social media aspect comes in because we're finding that it's an early pathway to sexual misconduct." 

The bulk of the legislation, which was approved unanimously by the state's Senate on April 7, will take effect on Aug. 28 -- just in time for the new school year. 

Districts will have several additional months to implement the social-networking aspect of the new law. "Frankly, a teacher that has nothing to hide will be real pleased by this, because it's going to show their good work," Cunningham said. "A good teacher is going to like this." 

Randy Turner, a communication arts teacher at East Middle School in Joplin, Mo., told FoxNews.com he's fearful districts will ban usage of social-networking sites altogether to eradicate any potential gray areas. 

"I understand people have concerns about who their children are having as friends on Facebook, but I know many teachers who have used Facebook, and all of them have been professional," Turner said. "We're not getting on there to be pals. It's a professional service." 

Turner said he's also worried that the new law removes an important "avenue" for contact between teachers and students -- both during times of emergency and during the everyday grind of homework. "A student having difficulty with a classroom assignment probably won't want to advertise on Facebook that he or she is having a problem with it," he said. 

Under the new law, Turner said teachers wouldn't be able to respond directly to seemingly innocuous questions like whether school will be in session tomorrow or to directly disseminate information during times of emergency. Turner said he used Facebook extensively in May following the tornado that killed at least 116 people in Joplin. 

In a statement to FoxNews.com, Facebook officials said a growing number of teachers everyday use social networks as a "valuable educational tool" to answer homework questions or to identify bullying. "It is imperative that this law does not limit schools' and teachers' ability to use technology in this way to educate Missouri's students, and we are working with the education and legal communities to investigate," spokesman Tucker Bounds wrote in an email to FoxNews.com. 

Meanwhile, Robert Sigrist, assistant principal at Central High School in St. Joseph, Mo., said Cunningham's primary intention with the new law was to ensure that "inappropriate communication" does not take place between teachers and students online. 

"This is an evolving thing," he told FoxNews.com. "It still has to be worked out as to what is acceptable. This is new technology, especially for people who don't tweet and aren't on Facebook, so there's always concern for the unknown."

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