Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Stupid Legislation of the Month (and it isn't the debt deal)

No one knows for sure who came up with the maxim that a camel is a horse designed by a committee, but no one doubts its wisdom, either. And the bill to raise the debt ceiling is a particularly ugly camel, at that. It is the product of weeks of partisan posturing, a complete lack of presidential leadership, an uncommonly high level—in both qualitative and quantitative terms—of hypocritical and indeed mendacious declarations by virtually any Republican you can mention (except the really stupid ones who may even believe some of the drivel they spout) and more than a few Democrats.

It really doesn’t do what it says it will do, but manages nonetheless to encapsulate the GOP’s proclivity for extortion and the Democrats’ equally well-developed propensity for cravenness and capitulation. It kicks the overwhelming majority of decisions down the proverbial road a little further, and creates a “super-Congress” of people the rest of us don’t get to vote on who will dither and pontificate for a while longer before coming up with a proposal acceptable to the Koch brothers and Grover Freaking Norquist: the only people in the country who appear to count, anymore. The bill may have needed to be passed, but it’s a terrible horrible no good very bad piece of legislation in about every conceivable way.

Still, for absolute, mind-blowing, glow-in-the-dark stupidity, it pales in comparison to this bill from Missouri, passed a couple of weeks ago but only finding its way into the public consciousness over the last couple of days. The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act is named for a student who was molested by a teacher over three decades ago (!). Ms. Hestir testified a couple years back before the Missouri House Education Committee; needless to say, legislators are incapable of reason when confronted by anecdotal evidence that feeds their prejudices, so we now get a bill which apparently prohibits teachers from being Facebook friends with their students.

I suspect that there are constitutional issues involved here: being a teacher doesn’t mean you give up your right to choose your own friends. But it gets worse. Here’s the exact wording of the part I’m talking about:
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.
OK, a few points. First, it is reasonable to exercise caution, regardless of one’s age or profession, in one’s interactions on social media. My students are older than those in question here. Even so, I won’t initiate a friend request for one of my students (even if I’m confident that the reason the student hasn’t started the process him/herself is oversight rather than choice). I often allow students to see only a limited profile, or block their posts from showing up on my news feed. Even more trepidation is in order when dealing with high schoolers (and younger).

But to say that this law is clumsily written is like saying that Barney Frank isn’t likely to endorse Michele Bachmann for president. First off, it’s ill-conceived in that it targets teachers for no clear reason. I do not doubt that Ms. Hestir was molested by a teacher, and that she suffered considerably from that ordeal. But the creep in question could just as easily have been her church choir director, rec league softball coach, mom’s co-worker or dad’s bowling team buddy... or Dad, himself. But teachers are currently the flavor of the month on the right-wing idiot hit list, so guess who gets the brunt of the stupid rule? (By, the way, shock of shocks, the bill’s sponsor, Senator Jane Cunningham, is the Tea Partier who proposed eviscerating the state’s child-labor laws a few months ago.)

Secondly, it criminalizes not only innocent behavior, but, at least potentially, innocent inertia. It is unclear whether simply being a Facebook friend is forbidden. Cunningham tells CNN not: “The law doesn't prohibit social media contact. If anybody says it does then they have not read the law. It just stops exclusivity, we just want those conversations to be available to the parents and school districts.” I have read the law, and I’m not so sure. The legislation does not, in fact, prohibit employing “exclusive access.” It forbids teachers from having a website that allows such access. Facebook, for example, allows exclusivity through both chat and message features. Of course, what the law actually does is to prevent teachers from having accounts with Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, etc., altogether. And forget about a personal blog!

That may not be what Ms. Cunningham intended, which means only that she as incompetent at writing as she is at legislating. My guess, however, is that even the mental deficients who run the state of Missouri aren’t really going to try to keep teachers from having a Facebook page. Rather, they will send out the Friend Police to scour the friends lists of students and teachers alike, trampling willy-nilly on 4th as well as 1st Amendment rights, chasing after what is public already. (Note: a student and a teacher can engage in an on-line messaging conversation without being “friends.”)

Teachers know people through other means than their jobs. I have a teenaged niece who is my Facebook friend. If I taught high school instead of college and lived in the same town as her, I’d be fine to continue our Facebook friendship up until the day she enrolled in my class (or perhaps in my school—the law is unclear on this point, as on so many others). But if I forgot to de-friend her, I’d be in violation of the law. It’s not clear what the penalty would be: probably losing my job. Think the regulation wouldn’t be pursued with that level of ardor? Well, people moronic enough to pass or sign a law like this are fully imbecilic enough to demand its enforcement… or, conversely, they were just showboating all along. You choose.

Thirdly, this law wouldn’t work, even if there were a serious problem (“serious” here is intended only in quantitative terms; obviously even a single case is a problem in qualitative terms). The legislation precludes only websites. Are you seriously going to tell me that a pervy teacher isn’t going to figure out that (s)he can still communicate by cell phone, text message, or e-mail? Kids really do know how to delete messages, and the average parent would have no clue how to retrieve them once that happens. This legislation is equivalent to mounting an anti-obesity campaign by outlawing licorice, while leaving unregulated the chocolate-covered marshmallows next to it on the supermarket shelf.

Fourthly, forbidding contact between teachers and “former students” is absurd on its face. I started teaching in 1979, and I’ve still got another decade or more to my career. Even if I were dealing with junior high kids instead of college students, I’d now have “former students” well into their forties. But, as the law is currently written, they’d still be off limits. Nowhere in the bill is there any mention of “minor students” or similar language.

Fifthly, the legislation forbids all manner of positive interactions—not merely the high school teacher who can calm the apprehensions of the former student now experiencing the trauma inherent in the freshman year of college, but also, as pointed out to MSNBC by University of Missouri information services professor Vicki Sauter, specifically professional assistance: “There are social media sites like LinkedIn where a student may want to put together a page for their career and get advice from a teacher. With this law they can’t do that, so I think it’s short sighted.”

Social media also have a positive function during times of crisis. Randy Turner, a teacher at Joplin East Middle School, whose blog piece on the topic is more specific and more eloquent than I can be, describes “the positive effect that teachers and students being Facebook friends had on Joplin Schools’ effort to locate students after the May 22 tornado.”

Finally, there is simply no need for this legislation. Ms. Turner makes this point brilliantly:
The laws are already in place, something Sen. Cunningham never mentions. During the mid 1990s, the state enacted laws which toughened background checks on teachers, expedited the removal of criminal teachers from the classroom, and ensured that their teaching licenses would be revoked.

And those laws have worked. Ironically, the success of that legislation has been used as a weapon against teachers by Sen. Cunningham. Each year as she pushed this legislation, she cited an Associated Press survey which showed Missouri ranked high in the number of teachers whose licenses were revoked for sexual acts with students.

In other words, these people were already being removed from having contact with students and their licenses were being revoked. The law was working. The very success of the law served as ammunition for Sen. Cunningham, since the AP study was comparing Missouri to states that have taken no action to cut down on the minority of teachers who bring shame to the whole profession.
In short, what this bill does is to outlaw positive interactions between teachers and students while doing bupkes to prevent the tiny minority of abusers from continuing their already-criminal ways. It serves as a direct and quite intentional insult to the overwhelming majority of teachers who would no more abuse a child in their care than chew off their own leg. It costs school districts time and, by extension, money, while budgets are being shrunk—and without a whiff of an upside. It reveals a profound lack of understanding of how social media operate, the technology involved, or the adolescent mind-set. Its sponsor is either horrifyingly stupid or outright insane. In other words, it is the quintessence of what passes for “common sense” among the Tea Party crowd.

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