Yesterday two of my colleagues let me know about a law in Missouri that limits teacher-student online interactions using websites like Facebook and Twitter. When I saw this I was immediately outraged and did rant just a little bit about the law, while not really knowing the whole story. So I did some searching and quickly came across a Huffington Post article, which led me to the actual senate bill. All in all, the bill isn’t that terrible, but there are two small parts of the bill that limit teacher-student interaction using text messaging and online websites, which I feel unreasonably limits student-teacher interaction and creates an image of teachers that hurts the profession. They can be found on page 15, lines 26-33 in the above linked senate bill.
Before going on, I do want to point out that there are sexual predators in our schools and that too many of the nations students are sexually assaulted by educators. However, the number of responsible educators looking out for students by far out number the scum that prey on them. The Associated Press found from 2001 to 2005 that 2,570 educators had their “teaching credentials revoked, denied, surrendered, or sanctioned for alleged sexual misconduct.” However, when you put that in perspective, that’s less than one tenth of a percent of the over 3 million teachers in the nation. Assuming that rate is consistent from state to state, Missouri lawmakers are legislating against the whole in response to the actions of a few. And while the bill goes on to do a number of what I consider good and decent things to protect young people and to stop the “passing of the trash” from school to school, such as: providing guidelines for reporting alleged abuse or providing protection for educators who report other educators for alleged sexual abuse, restricting the interactions of educators in online spaces that might be private, seems like it goes a bit too far.
Can sexual abuse still happen through this medium? Yes. Will this law prevent the people who really want to abuse children from using these sites? Probably not, which means that this part of the law will only prevent the other, non-sexual predators who also happen to be the vast majority of educators, from using social networking and text messaging to help students learn and support their growth. Most teachers won’t be willing to use these mediums because they might do something wrong. It isn’t worth the risk of losing your teaching license. I get that. I also understand that Missouri lawmakers are trying to protect young people from the sleaze of the earth, but this isn’t how you do it. This law has a number of different ways that will actually help protect children, but limiting teacher-student interactions via text messaging and social networking sites isn’t the way to do it. Your desired effect isn’t going to happen. The predators will likely use these mediums, because they take calculated risks, just like they take calculated risks when they decide to sexually abuse young people.
Students, parents, educators, community members, and anyone else who cares about children, need online safety training in a 21st century context. Students need to be taught how to responsibly use social networking sites and text messaging so we have fewer incidents with children being abused. Thinking we can just block the issue away isn’t going to solve the underlying problem. It’s just going to make it worse. Students will continue to be abused and bullied by other students and adults. We have an opportunity to make a difference, but limiting our freedom to teach young people isn’t the way to do it.
After reading the bill, I’m wondering if people will think: if teachers can’t be trusted using text messaging and social networking sites with my children, then how can they be trusted when they are physically close to them? This law not only will be ineffective in preventing cyber sexual predators, but it hurts education as a profession. It shows that educators aren’t people we can trust, when this is far from the truth.