Missouri gov. signs bill changing school sex abuse laws

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by CHRIS BLANK

Associated Press

Posted on July 15, 2011 at 7:44 AM

Updated Friday, Jul 15 at 9:09 AM

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Gov. Jay Nixon signed legislation Thursday that requires schools to share information about teachers who have sexually abused students and set polices for limiting online communication among teachers and students.
   Part of the legislation is aimed at preventing school districts from unknowingly hiring someone with a history of substantiated sex abuse allegations.
   School districts that have employed a staff member with a substantiated allegation involving sexual misconduct will need to disclose that if contacted for a reference by another district. If they do not disclose that information and the staff member later abuses someone else, the original school district could be sued.
   Lawsuits will be barred against school employees who are allowed to provide information about former staff members and who follow their district's policies. Staff members who report allegations of sexual abuse by another will not be able to lose their jobs if they have acted in good faith.
   The legislation won broad support in the Legislature and was backed by teacher organizations and school leaders.
   "We think it represents a step forward in keeping kids as safe as possible at school," said Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards' Association.
   Officials from the Missouri State Teachers Association and the Missouri National Education Association, which both supported the legislation, said it balances protections for students and rights for staff members.
   Lawmakers have considered legislation for the past several years after The Associated Press in 2007 found that 87 licensed Missouri teachers lost their credentials between 2001 and 2005 because of sexual misconduct involving students. The AP discovered that some teachers found to have engaged in sexual misconduct with students were able to get teaching jobs elsewhere in Missouri because the district that fired them did not pass the information to the new employers.
   Jane Cunningham, the Senate sponsor, said the legislation establishes important safeguards to protect students from sexual misconduct by school employees.
   "It's going to be hugely protective of those students," said Cunningham, R-Chesterfield.
   Another piece of the legislation requires school districts to develop policies by 2012 for communication between teachers and students that covers text messages, social networking websites and other electronic devices. Those polices are to include restrictions on how teachers can use social networking websites and interact with students over the Internet.
   That portion of the legislation has prompted concern from some about exactly how it would work.
   Ghan said it could prove difficult to police and might pose potential legal problems. The Missouri State Teachers Association plans to review the electronic communication portion.
   One person voicing objections is Randy Turner, a middle-school English teacher in Joplin. Turner said social networking websites can be a useful tool for teachers and that using them can help educators teach students about how to use the Internet sites responsibly. In addition, Tuner said teachers used social networking websites to confirm their students were OK after a deadly tornado struck the southwestern Missouri city in May. He said the restrictions in the legislation could have made that process more difficult.
   "There is nobody that gets penalized by this except people who would never even consider crossing the line," Turner said.
   Cunningham said her intent was to require that the websites teachers use to communicate with students also be accessible to school administrators and parents.
   Records released to the AP Thursday show that several people during the past several months sent Nixon emails urging him to sign the legislation because it would help to protect children.
   Others asked Nixon to veto the legislation and said it was concerning that teachers' ability to use new technology could be restricted. Some said it might help protect students if teachers also were using social networking websites and therefore were therefore able to spot potential problems.
   The legislation signed into law Thursday also requires annual background checks for teachers, bars registered sex offenders from serving on school boards and creates a new task force of lawmakers and state child welfare officials to focus on sexual abuse of children that and complete a study by 2013.
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   Teacher sex abuse is SB54
   Online:
   Nixon: http://www.gov.mo.gov
   Legislature: http://www.moga.gov
 

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