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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Missouri schools to set new student protection policies

Monday, January 9, 2012

Following the state's passage of the "Amy Hestir Student Protection Act" in 2011, all Missouri school districts must enact new teacher/student policies for non-school hours by March 1.

The 35-page bill was named for Amy Hestir Surdin, a Missouri woman who was sexually abused by her teacher and coach in junior high school.

Thayer Schools Superintendent Dan Chappell said in December the ruling will not effect Thayer as it already has a policy to comply with stricter restrictions regarding online and other electronic communication between teachers and students.

"It also involves teacher training, which we already do," Chappell said.

The Missouri State Teachers Association, however, has a different angle on it, Chappell said.

The association, the largest state educators association in Missouri with no national affiliation, thinks the new policy infringes on teachers' Freedom of Speech rights, Chappell said.

Chappell said the association already is involved in a legal battle with the Missouri School Boards Association over the issue.

In a letter to the district, MSTA executive director Kent King asked all association members to "consider a less onerous policy to regulate conduct" already regulated by existing law.

"I also ask that you actively remove any restrictions on employees' non-work-related speech, association and activities," King wrote. "MSTA strongly believes that your employees are not your employees for 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

The new law forbids Internet friendships and any form of interaction between teachers and students on sites such as Facebook in an effort to more clearly define the boundaries of student-teacher relationships.

Hestir was a Missouri public school student when she developed a relationship with her teacher. Hestir was molested and assaulted by the man, who still teaches school today, she said at a Missouri State Education Committee public hearing.

By March 1, all districts must promulgate a written policy concerning employee-student communication. The 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.

By July 1, each district must include in staff training the following:

"A component that provides up-to-date and reliable information on identifying signs of sexual abuse in children and danger signals of potentially abusive relationships between children and adults. The training shall emphasize the importance of mandatory reporting of abuse under section 210.115 including the obligation of mandated reporters to report suspected abuse by other mandated reporters, and how to establish an atmosphere of trust so that students feel their school has concerned adults with whom they feel comfortable discussing matters related to abuse."

The bill, which was unanimously approved by the Missouri Senate, also bars registered sex offenders from running for school board and improves the process involved in the background checks now required for all school employees.

The Amy Hestir Act will "grant civil immunity to school district officials who inform other districts that a former teacher was forced to resign or is fired for sexual abuse of a student and requires school boards to have a policy on information that the district may provide about former employees to other public schools," according to MSBA.

Some Missouri legislators have said that, under current law, school districts are sometimes reluctant to share information regarding former employees for fear of lawsuits.

"As a result, teachers who engage in sexual abuse or misconduct with students may be allowed to relocate from one district to another, with the new school district unaware of the employee's prior record," Sen. Tom Dempsey, majority floor leader, said in a press release.

The bill would legally protect school districts that share this information, Dempsey said.

"It would also make them liable for damages if they dismiss an employee for sexual misconduct and then fail to disclose those reasons to a school district seeking to hire that individual," Dempsey said.

Regarding the law, MSTA is most concerned about the restrictions placed on teachers regarding "creative, ever-evolving 21st century electronic" communication, and advises school districts to engage in discussions with teachers about the issue.

"Your school employees may surprise and amaze you with their knowledge of the special programs and unique reasons for using them (electronic means) to help your students achieve their maximum abilities," King wrote.

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