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Following the Missouri Anti-Social Networking Story

Following the Missouri Anti-Social Networking Story

I've been following Randy Turner's blog every since the devastating tornado that ripped through his hometown of Joplin, MO. Randy is a journalist, a communication arts teacher and a sensitive fellow who seems to be a strong and persistent voice of reason for his community. Lately, his blog has been quoted on MSNBC in regard to the issue of a new law in MO that is to take effect (if you can call it that) in the fall, the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act.

Now you'd think from the title of the law, it would be a good thing: Protecting kids, and all that. Unfortunately what Amy Hestir has on her mind is the fearful spectre of rampant abuse of students by their teachers via social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Hester seems to bear particular animus against Facebook. The law, which is vague and unenforceable at best unless of course the state starts spying on its citizen's private communications (not unthinkable), calls it a crime for a teacher to communicate via a social networking site with a student, current or former.

Think about it. Randy Turner has.

After the tornado in Joplin, Randy was frantically trying to find his students to see if they were alright. Facebook and Twitter were his main means of doing so. Not all of them were OK, and after the deaths were counted and Joplin started the long task of putting itself back together again, social networking sites became one of the community's main means of sharing widespread grief and mourning, not to mention a forum for organizing and putting the town back together again.

As Randy points out, this new law assumes the potential guilt of all teachers and creates a negative atmosphere where none need exist. As I know from personal experience, teachers who want to have inappropriate relationships with students will do so, and they will do it in the flesh or virtual world as the opportunity presents itself. Without minimizing the power of digital communications, I think I can say that being molested or offered a joint in person is a more life-changing event than receiving a skeezy communication from Mr. BadTeacher via Facebook! So one might well ask, why not just write a law calling for severe punishment of  teachers who have inappropriate relationships with students via any means? And, though it might seem obvious to you and me, what after all is "inappropriate" in the eyes of a person like Amy Hestir? Would giving private counsel to a young girl who's discovered she's pregnant and is afraid she is going to be beaten up by her Dad if she tells him be considered "inappropriate"? Would counseling the child of a Jehovah's witness that it's OK to be gay be considered "inappropriate"? 

What we do know  about Hestir is that she was sexually molested by a teacher when she was 12, 28 years ago. Before the internet even existed. What we can intuit is that Hestir, like many people who are victims of childhood abuse, has made crusading against  those who remind her of her childhood abuser (who went unpunished) her main life's motivation. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But when we crusade, it is incumbent upon us to sort out whether what we are doing is wise or not, not just whether it satisfies a lifelong desire to avenge ourselves personally. Not to be mean or anything, but I think Amy Hestir might consider facing her personal demons privately with a therapist, and leave the rest of us and our social networking alone.

Amy Hestir's entire argument  for creating a law specifically focused on the perceived "danger" of social networking sites rests upon the unspoken assumption that the freedom of social networking is  in itself dangerous, with a capital D and that rhymes with P and that stands for Pederast!  Hestir is a spokesperson for an emerging group of people who think that the Internet is a Fearsome Place where our children must not go freely, as it it were some sort of Black Forest where our Hansels and Gretels might get eaten by the Wicked Witch (who, naturally, has a page on Facebook). We can argue what "inappropriate" is until we are blue in the face and, by the way, we should. But we also must come to grips with the general scapegoating of social networking that is rising among those in power.   Tipper Gore scapegoated popular music back in mid-80s in the same way, and caused a ruckus that left us with an insane system of coding that few can understand or appreciate.  Scapegoating media always leads to censorship. And social ills of every sort have existed long before a silicon chip ever dreamed of becoming a Facebook page.

For some people, social networking is the Salem Witch whom they would like to burn at the stake. The internet is a fearsome place to them, but it extends the very freedoms of which all Americans claim to be so proud. Ironically, it is this very freedom of which so many are still so very afraid.

 

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8 comments

I really enjoyed reading your post, Dorothy, and think it raises a number of very valid points.

I find myself in complete agreement that the Act would be extremely difficult to implement and would be very interested to hear Facebook's take on the situation.

I think to add to your point about the Act assuming the potential guilt of all teachers, it also assumes that all children/young adults lack the awareness and understanding of what an inappropriate student-teacher relationship looks like online. It never ceases to amaze me just how astoundingly literate the current generation of students are, not simply in how to engage with digital technologies but with the social issues that surround them. 

In my mind, the entire association between online teacher-student communication and likelihood of abuse is flawed logic at best. Couldn't an argument be made that the 'Bad Teacher' is in fact less likely to abuse a student via Facebook or Twitter due to the persistence and evidenced documentation of the communication? 

 

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Thank you for joining in the discussion, Chris! Your comment about the increasing saavy of young people is very well taken. The romanticization of children by adults as naive and as natural victims of Big Bad Wolves continues to defy the reality that they are more wise to life and a wide variety of ideas than ever we were at their age.

Your very on-target comment that online abuses would be well documented and therefore less attractive to the potential abuser/harasser has a great deal of merit, and is something I thought about in the shower after writing this post. (I love those post-post moments when you're still thinking and realize you left out all sorts of good ideas!) Certainly, I would think that many of the people who abuse the trust of children and their parents are a little "off" to say the least and would post the darndest things online without pondering the consequences ( Anthony Wiener). And that said, as you comment, it would seem a GOOD thing that such exploitation would be provable via the digital evidence as opposed to the he said-she said that happens when such exploitation happens behind the gym or in the locker room.

By any rational standards, words on a child's Facebook page and a groping hand in a child's underpants are two completely different experiences with very different consequences for the child. Indeed, receiving an inappropriate letter in the mail or a note in one's locker, possible without social networking, would also be a different experience from actual physical abuse. The law singles out digital media over paper and pen: Why? This point is important because it shows that Hestir's real bugaboo is the internet and the freedoms it offers, not preventing  inappropriate contact between students and teachers.

I also wondered (as I applied the cream rinse) how this law would affect Mrs. Rodrigues's  6th grade Spanish class: She sets up a web site for her class where she gives them homework assignments and kindly offers to answer questions about the material in a forum setting where everyone can benefit from the answer.  Is this against the law? Is the censorship Ms. Hestir proposes limited to commercial networking sites like FB and Twitter, or does it extend to Mrs. Rodrigues's Sixth Grade Spanish.edu? If the former, why? And if the latter, how can we defend telling Billy it's now against the law to ask Mrs. R. a question about the preterit tense?

Censorship and restriction of liberty of expression are contrary to the founding principles of our country.  Illogical and unenforceable laws are a blight on our society. Everyone who cares about freedom should weigh in against this irrational and dangerous piece of legislation.

Thanks again for speaking up, Chris. I'd love to hear more about how the internet works where you teach in terms of providing a space (like this) for conversations to happen.

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Anonymous (not verified)

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I understand everyone being very concerned about teacher/student relationships and that is a good thing.  The problem is that reporters have focused on one line of the law and run with it.  The law does not prohibit online communication between students and teachers where a third party cannot monitor the relationship.  There is no circumstance where a teacher should be communicating with a student at the elementary or secondary education level that the teacher would not be comfortable with an administrator or parent viewing the communication.  

I would in recommend that in the future you refrain from presuming to know what another person you have no personal knowledge of is thinking.  Your writing will be more credible, trust me.   I would also recommend you read the full text of the law before presuming to judge it's merits.

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I am very surprised at some of the anger directed at me personally in the comments above. I have read your comments several times and want to respond in a way that, I hope, will be both polite and respectful.

Gary, you write vehemently that my post "... is not reporting, it is not journalism and to hide in a closed community (does anyone who doesn't agree with your viewpoint register here?) and spew this forth shows a severe lack of character, in my opinion." Gary, I am not hiding. Anyone is invited to join in the conversation on this site, as your own comment proves. No, I am not a journalist, nor do I claim to be one. Neither is HASTAC a news site. If you want to know more about who I am you can read my profile here, and if you are curious what HASTAC's mission is, you can read the mission statement at this site. All opinions, expressed respectfully and in the spirit of real dialogue are welcome here.

No,  I did not interview Amy Hestir. Her name is on this law and I presume therefore that  she supports its provisions. If you think this statement is incorrect, please feel free to correct me. My post, however, was not about Ms. Hestir per se, but rather about the law named after her and what I theorize are the impulses that motivate people like her to want to restrict civil liberties in the modern age in the name of protecting children. I do not bear ill will towards Ms. Hestir, nor the law's sponsor, Senator Jane Cunningham, nor anyone else involved with this matter. I do, however, take great umbrage with laws that impinge upon civil liberties and freedom of expression. I think it is wrong when laws imply guilt to a whole class of people such as, in this case, teachers. I ask you: Who started this war against teachers, and when will it stop?

Ken, you write that "There is no circumstance where a teacher should be communicating with a student at the elementary or secondary education level that the teacher would not be comfortable with an administrator or parent viewing the communication." Certainly, that is true. But what about the children's right to communicate? I know when I was in 5th grade, there were a lot of things I told Mrs. Turkel that I would not have wanted my parents or the principal to hear! Don't the children have rights too? Social media is their favored form of communication in these days: Why should they not be able to use it as they choose?

Both Ken and Gary presume erroneously that I have not read Bill No. 54. In fact, I have. In my original post, I  attached a link  to an MSNBC report to help others become acquainted with the language of the law. As additional diligence, here is a link to the final text of MO Senate Bill No. 54 for those who wish to read it.

Gary assumes Randy Turner is my "buddy". I do not know Mr. Turner.  I consider him a solid journalist, I admire his writing and I have been reading his work since a tornado took out his home town of Joplin, MO. We happen to have similar opinions about this matter. I imagine we would have different opinions on others.

There are other aspects of this law that haven't been mentioned which strike me as stunningly bad law, such as the provision the allows for "certificated personnel" to "spank" school children and stating that, legally, spanking  "is not abuse". So  according to MO law you can actually hit children in school if you're "certificated", but the teacher can't send them a message on FB.  What kind of sense does that make?

In my post, however, I chose to focus on Section 162.069, the section that makes clear that communicating electronically with students in any forum that is not accessible to school administrators and parents is illegal. It is this part that I think is not only irrational, irresponsible,  and a terrible legal precedent to set, but is also something that I think should be vigorously challenged in court for impinging on the civil liberties of both the students and and the teachers of the State of Missouri. If you'd like to argue that point, I'd be happy to discuss it with you.

 

 
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Anonymous (not verified)

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Anonymous (not verified)

Ms. Snyder,

I would like to apologize for accusing of not having read the law and for not having referenced it.  It was a huge oversight on my part to not have noticed the link in my reading through your post.

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