Missouri's Misplaced Social Networking Law and Our Misplaced Media Attention Surrounding It

Before I launch into my analysis (um, rant) here, let me pause for a moment to note that, as I argued in my recent resignation notice, the one of the only times tech journalism opts to pay attention to education or to ed-tech is when a teacher does something untoward on Facebook.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="The "Show Me" state. Irony much?"][/caption]So it's really no surprise that I've seen so many headlines today about the recently passed legislation in Missouri that would restrict teacher-student relationships via social networking sites. It makes for great headlines after all: "Missouri Forbids Teachers and Students to Be Facebook Friends." "Missorui Bans Teacher-Student Friendships on Facebook." "Missouri First to Outlaw Teacher-Student Facebook Friendships." Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Missouri is actually not the first state to try to place limitations on interactions between teachers and their students online. Earlier this year, the Virginia Board of Education proposed guidelines that would restrict teachers and all school employees from any electronic communications -- via Facebook, other social networking sites, SMS, and so on -- with students. This spring, Rhode Island also passed legislation effectively banning social networking in the state.

The rationale in all these cases is the same: we need to protect children from online menaces. In Rhode Island, those menaces are cyberbullies. In Virginia and Missouri, those menaces are teachers. Or rather, the menaces are teachers who could be sexual predators.

Of course both bullying and sexual assault occur offline as well as online -- with or without the aid of Facebook and the like. And both have a long history that pre-dates the Internet. But there you have it. When it comes time to crack down on "bad behavior" by students and teachers, social networking seems to be an easy and obvious target whether or not there are already laws on the books that address youth violence, bullying or sexual predation.

Part of the fear, I think, involves the fact that the Internet is still The Great Unknown to many people (most notably, it appears, state-level government officials). The Internet is where weirdos and freaks and loners and sociopaths reside (Hooray us!). It's much easier and politically expedient to place the blame at the feet of the unknown and the murky and the socially-networked than it is to uncover or address some of the deeper issues that lead to violence or sexual predation.

So a couple of thoughts:

1) We must always agitate for teachers and students to be able to participate in public, not just private, social networks.

Jack West asked me today if I thought the Missouri legislation, as written, would ban something like Edmodo. Well, here's the language from the Missouri law that pertains to social networking:

SECTION 162.069 - By January 1, 2012, every school district must develop a written policy concerning teacher-student communication and employee-student communications. Each policy must include appropriate oral and nonverbal personal communication, which may be combined with sexual harassment policies, and appropriate use of electronic media as described in the act, including social networking sites. Teachers cannot establish, maintain, or use a work-related website unless it is available to school administrators and the child's legal custodian, physical custodian, or legal guardian. Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student.

I'll have more to say about Edmodo tomorrow as I do think that what the service offers will pass muster. I think. But even if Edmodo is safe, I'm not happy. As much as I think Facebook has done a lousy job with privacy and the like, I will still never sign onto a policy that would ban it outright simply because there might be bad people there (or more accurately in this case, bad people in your school building who also happen to have Facebook accounts.)

And really,that's the thing. This legislation isn't well-written or well-versed in the realities of the Internet. It's not really clear if Edmodo is "in" or "out." Heck, it's not clear if email is safe.

See, take that last sentence, for example: "Teachers also cannot have a nonwork-related website that allows exclusive access with a current or former student." What does this mean? If a teacher offers a chat plug-in via her or his website, does that violate the law? If a teacher posts her or his Google Voice number or, heck, even an email address, does that mean that they're offering "exclusive access."

You can prey on kids on Facebook, sure. But you can prey on kids via an email account. You can prey on kids via a cellphone. You can handwrite naughty letters. You can prey on kids in the park. You can prey on kids in an ice-cream truck. Where is the legislation outlawing ice cream trucks, dammit? Also, let's ban skateboard parks and playgrounds and G-rated movies and toy stores -- all places where kids could potentially be in danger, right?

But seriously: It's the predatory behavior that should be the issue here, not the technology.

2) We cannot let this media narrative about "bad teachers on Facebook" continue.

I realize that it's a pretty titillating story with a certain amount of guaranteed Google-juice when you write about Teachers+Facebook+Sexually-Inappropriate-Behavior. But damn, there is so much more happening with social media. If this is the only thing that gets people to write about how teachers are using social networking sites -- to lure kids into their bedrooms -- then we have failed. We journalists. But also we teachers.

We have failed to articulate how important social networking has become to bridging home and school. We have failed to showcase the ways in which the Internet facilitates collaboration. Read pretty much anything by Principal Eric Sheninger to get a glimpse into how a school can use social networking to connect students, parents, and the entire community. Have a look at the research that points to an increased engagement on the part of students who utilize social networking sites like Twitter. Look how social networking allows shy, quiet students to speak up in class.

Oh, and Missouri legislators? Have a look at how online connections helped students after the recent Joplin tornado.


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