By CHRIS BLANK
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Gov. Jay Nixon signed legislation Thursday that requires schools to share information about teachers who have sexually abused students and restricting 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 don't 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 administrators.
"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.
Sponsoring Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, says the measure creates important safeguards that will help to protect students from sexual misconduct by school employees.
Another piece of the legislation requires school districts to develop policies by 2012 for communication between teachers and students that includes text messages, social networking websites and other electronic devices. Those polices are to restrict teachers from interacting with students on websites or in ways that are not also accessible to others, including school administers and parents.
That portion of the legislation has prompted concern from some.
Ghan said it could be difficult to police and might pose potential legal problems. The Missouri State Teachers Association plans to continue reviewing the electronic communication portion and could suggest to lawmakers some possible changes.
One person voicing objections is Randy Turner, a middle-school English teacher in Joplin. Turner said the websites can be a useful tool for teachers and that using them can help educators teach students about how to use social networking 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 would have made that same process far more difficult.
"There is nobody that gets penalized by this except people who would never even consider crossing the line," Turner said.
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.
Teacher sex abuse is SB54