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Online student-teacher friendships can be tricky

  • Story Highlights
  • Some teachers use sites like MySpace to help connect, communicate with students
  • Critics say the online communication breeds inappropriate relationships
  • Proposed law would ban teachers from having online friendships with students
  • Teacher says predators will get to children even if online friendships barred
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By Mallory Simon
CNN
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(CNN) -- Randy Turner knows there's a huge gap in age and technology between him and his adolescent students.

Critics say social-networking site communications blur the necessary line between educators and students.

Critics say social-networking site communications blur the necessary line between educators and students.

So when the 52-year-old set up a MySpace page and his students began asking to add him as a friend and sending him questions about assignments, he realized he was on to something.

"Just the very fact that I have MySpace makes them think, 'Well, maybe we can talk to this guy and open the lines of communication,' " said Turner, who teaches English at South Middle School in Joplin, Missouri. "I realized this is a major way of communication for them."

MySpace had 72.8 million national users in June, versus Facebook's 37.4 million, according to a ComScore Media Metrix study. Once available only to students with college e-mail addresses, Facebook opened its virtual doors to everybody two years ago.

Despite perceptions, the sites aren't populated just by teens and 20-somethings. A 2006 ComScore survey found that half of those registered on MySpace were 35 and older, while a similar study last year found that almost 40 percent of Facebook users were above 35.

Teachers such as Turner believe sites like MySpace help them connect with their students about homework, tutoring and other school matters. But others fear the social-networking sites are breeding inappropriate relationships between teachers and students.

In Missouri in particular, a rash of student-teacher sexual relationships have spawned crackdowns on social-networking friendships. Web site badbadteacher.com, which keeps track of teachers disciplined, arrested and convicted of inappropriate behavior with students, lists 11 such teachers from Missouri within the last two years.

Which is why state legislator Jane Cunningham is sponsoring a bill in the Missouri House of Representatives that would ban elementary school teachers from having social-networking friendships with their students.

Turner said he understands the reasoning for the bill. He acknowledged that in some cases, teachers have become the public face of inappropriate Facebook and MySpace relationships with kids.

"I see where they are coming from," Turner said. "You can't argue with people whose intentions are trying to protect children. But the simple fact is, you take these people who prey on children and they are going to find a way to do it, whether it's over Facebook or not."

Those teachers are ruining it for the ones legitimately trying to help children, Turner said.

"There are so many kids who are stubborn against anything teachers say, who are struggling in the classroom and refuse to ask for help," Turner said. "When it's so hard to reach these kids, why would you remove any of the weapons at your disposal to make a difference?"

Facebook does not knowingly collect personal information from anyone under the age of 13 or knowingly allow such persons to register, according to its Web site. Users must be at least 14 to register on MySpace, although such age restrictions are difficult to enforce.

In addition to the bill in the Missouri legislature, other school boards, teacher unions and parent-teacher associations across the country are drafting policies and issuing advisements about which online or text-messaging relationships are acceptable.

The Lamar County School Board in Missouri recently implemented a policy forbidding teachers and students from having any text-message conversations or social-networking friendships.

Jim Keith, an education lawyer who represents several school boards in Missouri, has been giving talks to teachers in which he explains that most of the inappropriate student-teacher relationships start out on a friendship level.

Keith spoke of one instance where a parent thought her child was spending extra time with a teacher who was trying to help her child overcome shyness. At Keith's urging, they checked the child's phone bill and found 4,200 text messages between the teacher and student.

"As an educator, there is a line of demarcation between you and your student," Keith said. "It's a line that you cannot come close to, let alone step over. You've got to establish it from Day One and say, 'I'm not your buddy; I'm not your friend; I'm just your teacher.' "

Keith agrees that teachers sometimes need to communicate after school with students about educational matters, but he said that's why teachers in Missouri have their own class pages hosted by their school districts. Those pages eliminate the need for Facebook or MySpace, he says, and allow the schools to monitor all student-teacher communication.

Many students, including Dixie Johnston, a senior at Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri, said that although their teachers have school-sponsored pages, most students rarely check them.

Turner insists that Facebook and MySpace aren't the evils that regulators should be after. Instead Turner wishes the focus remain on vetting the teachers being put in charge of the nation's youth.

"It's a sad thing, but with teaching you are going to have people who are attracted to the profession because of easy availability of kids," Turner said.

"Those predators are going to be there. But most of the time there are warning signs, and that's what we need to be working on, getting those people out ... not stopping teachers who haven't caused problems from reaching those who need [help] most."

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