Jefferson City, MO 4:54 p.m. — Missouri’s State Senate voted this afternoon on first-round approval for SB1: “162.069.1. Every school district shall, by March 1, 2012, promulgate a written policy concerning employee-student communication. Such policy shall include, but not be limited to, the use of electronic media and other mechanisms to prevent improper communications between staff members and students.” In other words, the State would no longer regulate online communications among teachers and students.
During debate, one state senator said that over the weekend several teachers had asked whether they could friend students on Facebook pages, and she asked the bill sponsor to answer that question. The response of Senator Jane Cunningham (R-Chesterfield) was “We don’t know,” because this decision would have to come from the teachers’ local school boards.
Next up, SB 1 must receive a final passing vote from the Senate before moving on to consideration by the House of Representatives.
Today’s vote was on a revision of the section of The Amy Hestir Child Protection Act dealing with online communications. Sen. Cunningham proposed her own revision to the Education Committee last week. However, the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) suggested the language the Senate approved today.
Last month, the MSTA sued the State of Missouri over the original language in this section of the Child Protection Act. After reviewing the arguments, a circuit court judge issued a 180-day injunction preventing the law from taking effect so he would have time to decide whether it violated state and federal free-speech rights.
Even if the state Senate and House of Representatives vote on final approval of the MSTA’s own language, this issue will not necessarily be over. Last week. the teachers association responded to member concerns on its Facebook page by stating they did not plan to end the lawsuit.
The MSTA’s statement on their Facebook page reads: “Given the attention this bill received language was going to be introduced to fix the issues. While we would have preferred to wait until January and give our members time to help with the language, this moved too quickly through the special session for us to do that. Additionally, many districts were going to create some kind of a policy if they did not already have one. Because of this process we are now aware of a few districts that have policies that are too restrictive. We intend to work with individual districts and teachers to make sure that all district policies continue to give teachers their first amendment rights, while at the same time allowing for proper use of technology.
“It is important to remember that we aren’t stopping our lawsuit on this matter because no one knows what will happen next. Also, we can still address this specific issue at MSTA’s Assembly of Delegates in November. It is not too late and the process is just starting.”
The MSTA declined to identify individual districts with too-restrictive policies regarding freedom of speech for teachers.
When Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon E. Beetem issued his injunction against the original bill last month, he wrote “The Court finds that the statute would have a chilling effect on speech.” He added that the breadth of the prohibition of speech was “staggering” and that the MSTA had a “substantial likelihood” of winning their case.
Many educators objected to the original provision in the law that would require all public school districts to adopt policies forbidding private communication among teachers and students using social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Teachers frequently use social media as an instructional tool.
Sen. Cunningham said she was surprised by the controversy over a bill intended to prevent sexual abuse of students by teachers and other school staff members. After the problems were pointed out to her, she worked with education organizations such as the MSTA and the National Education Association to revise the bill.
Missouri’s General Assembly is not in regular session, which ended last May. However, when Governor Jay Nixon received the injunction, he had already called the state legislators into an unusual special session to debate several economic issues, and he instructed them to add a repeal of the controversial language in the child protection act to their agenda.
What the Senate approved today was not a repeal but a revision of the original controversial language, which was: “No teacher shall establish, maintain or use a non-work-related internet site which allows exclusive access with a current or former student.” Other provisions of The Amy Hestir Child Protection Act remain unchanged.
Amy Hestir has testified before Missouri lawmakers about a junior high school teacher she claims sexually abused her in the 1980s, although she was afraid to report the crime and did not do so until the statute of limitations had passed.
Remaining unchanged will be provisions of the Amy Hestir Child Protection Act extending the statute of limitations for sexually abusing children and requiring districts to report information about teachers who have committed this crime. In addition, districts will be required to report child sexual abuse allegations within 24 hours. Also, when teachers who have sexually abused children lose their jobs, district employees are required to report this information to prospective employers calling for job references. Those reporting child sexual abuse receive civil immunity under the new law. The law extends the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse to 30 years after the victim reaches the age of 18. Mediation services will be available to the accused and the accuser. Another provision of the act is the establishment of a Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Abuse by Children.
Today’s vote took place during a special session of the Missouri General Assembly. Over the past decade, the Missouri General Assembly has met in special session only five times.
UPDATE Sept. 13 10:56 a.m.: The Missouri National Education Association sent a message out this morning saying further debate on this bill and a recorded vote in the Senate may come as early as today. However, at this point in time the Senate does not appear to have it on today’s special session agenda.
UPDATE Sept. 14 12:25 p.m.: The Senate did not vote on SB 1 today. However, according to a message the Missouri National Education Association just released, the Senate did put this bill on its calendar for a final vote, which may come later today.
UPDATE 1:13 p.m.: The bill is on its way to the House of Representatives now. Two hours ago, it passed the Senate unanimously.
UPDATE 4:33 p.m.: An update on SB 1 from the Missouri State Teachers Association, which is the organization that sued the state regarding this bill’s possible violation of free-speech rights: http://mostateteachers.typepad.com/missouri_state_teachers_a/2011/09/senate-bill-1-passes-unanimously-in-the-senate.html
UPDATE 1:23 a.m.: Looks like nothing more is going to happen with this bill until next week. Here’s an update we just received from the Missouri National Education Association:
HOUSE AND SENATE CONCLUDE ACTION FOR THE WEEK
The House did not convene for a full floor session this week in the First Extraordinary Session, but merely held technical sessions needed to read in Senate bills. The House will have a technical session on September 15 and then adjourn until next week.
The Senate passed three bills on September 14: SB 1 (Jane Cunningham) pertaining to school employee communication, SB 7 (Rob Mayer) to identify and support emerging technology-related businesses in the state. and SB 8 (Rob Mayer) pertaining to tax incentives. The Senate also briefly discussed one House bill, HB 3 (Tony Dugger) to move the presidential primary election date, before leaving for the week. Both chambers are expected to return for full floor debate sessions on Wednesday, September 21.
UPDATE September 19, 3:19 p.m.: The Missouri State Teachers Association posted the following on their Facebook page: Senate Bill 1 (previously Senate Bill 54) was just voted out of the House Education Committee by a 13 to 0 vote. It will likely go to the House floor on Thursday.
Follow our Twitter feed for more education news from local, regional and national sources:http://twitter.com/#!/JW_Martinez