K-12 education gets big wins in proposed FY 2023 budget

      Missouri schools and teachers would receive a number of boosts in the state spending plan approved last week by the legislature; a state budget that is one of the largest ever.  The final total proposed to go to K-12 schools exceeds $10-billion.

Representative Rusty Black (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“It is making an unprecedented investment in K-12 education in the State of Missouri and it is doing that in a couple different ways,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith (R-Carthage).

      The top Democrat on the budget committee, Peter Merideth (D-St. Louis), said, “[This budget proposal] is moving us back in the direction of showing that we as a state, we as a legislature, value K-12 education.”

      More than $21-million was included to boost base teacher pay by $13,000 a year, to $38,000.  The plan is a state/local split, with districts covering 30-percent of the cost for that increase. 

      Another $37-million would restart the Career Ladder program, which rewards experienced teachers for taking on extra responsibilities and professional development opportunities. 

      Representative Ingrid Burnett (D-Kansas City), a former teacher, school counselor and principal, said she was glad to see the state resume funding career ladder, a program that she often took advantage of during her career. 

      “I found it really helpful.  It was part of our family budget.  It was how we paid for things like the summer vacation or braces for the children,” said Burnett.

      Rusty Black (R-Chillicothe), who chairs the subcommittee on education appropriations and also worked as a teacher for 32 years, also appreciated the career ladder funding.

Representative Ingrid Burnett (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “As somebody that received that once, I think there’s value in that for our students, not just teachers.  Students get something out of those extra hours that are spent with them trying to make their lives better.”

      School bussing would also see an increase over the current fiscal year’s budget.

      “There’s an additional $214-million appropriated there and that is, again, an unprecedented level of funding in that regard,” said Smith.

      Merideth spoke for many Democrats in praising that increase.

“Something that we’ve been funding at below 40-percent for the last number of years we’re finally funding at 100-percent.  That’s another 200-plus million dollars going to our schools for their transportation costs,” said Merideth, who said this could lead to additional boosts in faculty pay.  “The fact that we’re fully funding school transportation is going to give schools some flexibility to be able to provide the local match they need and to give raises elsewhere.”

      Black, who was an agriculture teacher throughout his career, was excited by proposed increases to match programs to benefit career technical schools.  Local districts could upgrade equipment or facilities if they come up with 25-percent or 50-percent of the cost.

      Black said this would, “Help students with up-to-date equipment to [be able to] leave school and go into the workforce and see something that’s not 30, 40 years old in the shop at school, and get into a place and oh, it’s got a computer attached to it.”

      Burnett said she was glad to see this level of support proposed for Missouri K-12 education.  She said past years, when less money was appropriated, were like when she was teaching and would be confronted by an angry parent. 

“If the administration doesn’t have your back, you can’t understand that until the administration doesn’t have your back … to help mediate the situation.  To give you support on how to engage with the parent in a way that was not going to be escalatingwhen the administration is not getting that from the state, it’s the same.  You just feel like you’re out there on an island.”

      Black and other lawmakers stressed that much of the funding in the spending plan comes from non-recurring sources, like federal stimulus and COVID response.  Part of the challenge in appropriating that money is in finding targets that will give schools the best chance of long-term benefit, rather than supporting programs that might go unfunded in future years when those funding sources aren’t available.

Representatives Peter Merideth (left, seated) and Cody Smith (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“We just hope the people at the local level making those decisions are doing a good job making those decisions, spending this money that we have one-time to help reduce future costs so that those long-term items maybe with their local budgets, they can do a good job with,” said Black.  “One-time doesn’t automatically mean that it’s not going to be there next year, it’s just not making the guarantee to people that it’s going to be there.  Honestly in my years of dealing with government before this, there is no guarantee.  From year-to-year it’s a new budget and people making decisions at the local level, they know that too.”  

      The Fiscal Year 2023 budget would also provide grants or reimbursements of up to $1,500 to parents and guardians to cover tutoring and other services meant to catch up K-12s students who fell behind due to the COVID pandemic, and would provide pay increases to providers of the Parents as Teachers and First Steps programs.

      That spending plan is now before Governor Mike Parson (R).  If he approves it, it would take effect July 1.

House measure aims to boost suicide awareness and prevention, promote 988 Crisis Lifeline

      The Missouri House has taken time in the waning days of the session to pass a bipartisan effort to address suicide awareness and prevention.

Representative Ann Kelley (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      It sent to the Senate House Bill 2136, the “Jason Flatt/Avery Reine Cantor Act,” which would require public schools, charter schools, and public higher education institutions that print pupil identification cards to print on those cards the new three-digit number for the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, 988. 

      “988 is going to be our new mental health suicide hotline beginning in July, so this is going to encourage school districts to get that out there to the public so that we can start using that,” explained the bill’s sponsor, Representative Ann Kelley (R-Lamar)

      The bill also contains provisions meant to equip and encourage pharmacists to identify possible signs of suicide and respond to them.  This includes the “Tricia Leanne Tharp Act,” sponsored by Representative Adam Schwadron (R-St. Charles).

“This would allow the Board of Pharmacy to create two continuing education credit hours for pharmacists to take, to allow them to apply that to their continuing education credits in suicide awareness and prevention,” said Schwadron.

      The bill was amended to make sure all pharmacists can participate in that continuing education, regardless of where they work.  That change was offered by Representative Patty Lewis (D-Kansas City), who said, “All licensed pharmacists, whether they work inside the four walls of the hospital in an acute care setting or in retail pharmacy [would] have the opportunity to participate in the continuing education to address suicide prevention because there’s such a great need.”

      Bolivar representative Mike Stephens (R) is a pharmacist, and said he and others in that profession are well-positioned to be able to identify and work to prevent suicide.   

Representative Patty Lewis (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“I think it’s an important thing for pharmacists at every place along the way to be informed and be a part of this process, be aware.  I know in my own personal practice you have intimate contact with patients and you see them during their treatments and there are times that you feel like things aren’t as they ought to be but [you’re] not sure what sort of interventions are appropriate.  I think this will be very helpful,” said Stephens.

Similar language will allow teachers and principals to count two hours in suicide-related training toward their continuing education.

The bill advanced to the Senate 142-0 after several members spoke about their own experiences regarding suicide.

Festus Republican Cyndi Buchheit-Courtway told her colleagues that every seven hours someone commits suicide in Missouri.  It’s the tenth leading cause of death in the state and the second leading cause among those aged 10 to 34. 

“When you think about age 10 all the way up to 34 this is covering all of our children in schools and college when they first get out of school and they’re finding their first jobs or meeting someone and becoming a family, and I think that anything that we can do to bring awareness to this issue is just incredible,” said Buchheit-Courtway.  “Mental health awareness is so important to so many of us here.”

      Representative Dave Griffith (R-Jefferson City) said he knows of a 14 year-old who committed suicide two months ago, just south of the capital city.

Representative Adam Schwadron (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“He did it because he was being bullied in school and he felt there was no other way out and he couldn’t talk about it.  It became very obvious to that community the need for us to be able to talk and have some kind of tools in our hands to be able to prevent these types of tragic events,” said Griffith.  “The suicide prevention hotline number, I believe every school will put it on their cards.  There’s no reason for them not to do that.”

      Representative Rasheen Aldridge, Junior (D-St. Louis) told the body, “One of my good friends in high school, best friend … who is also between that age that the lady talked about, only in 10th grade, committed suicide … it takes a toll on loved ones, it takes a toll on friends, it takes a toll on people that love that individual and all individuals that have committed suicide.”

      The legislation stems partly from the work of the Subcommittee on Mental Health Policy Research, of which Lewis is a member and Buchheit-Courtway is the chairwoman.     

      The school-related provisions of the bill would take effect in the 2023-24 school year.

House votes to better prepare K-12 students with computer science courses

      The House has voted to better equip the state’s children for working in tech industries that demand an education in computer science. 

Representative Travis Fitzwater (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      House Bill 2202 would require the state’s public high schools to offer some form of computer science class and allow students to count such classes toward graduation requirements for science and practical arts credits, to satisfy admission requirements at colleges and universities. 

      The bill expands on legislation approved in 2018 that allowed computer science courses to count toward math, science, or practical arts credits needed to graduate high school.  That bill, like HB 2202, was sponsored by Holts Summit Republican Travis Fitzwater.

      “It provides an opportunity for kids to get the workforce training that our economy in the State of Missouri and our businesses desperately need.  There’s over 10,000 open computer science engineering jobs in our economy in just the State of Missouri.  Those jobs average over $80,000 a year,” said Fitzwater. 

      Fitzwater said the bill will help answer the needs of the growing list of innovative companies in Missouri.   

“It’s really important that we’re providing training and giving kids opportunities at a much younger age to get the training they need to enter the workforce for all these jobs that are available, for all these opportunities that are available.”

      The bill received unanimous support in the House, which voted 148-0 to send it to the Senate. 

      St. Louis Democrat Bridget Walsh Moore said this will help Missouri catch up.

      “Computer science should’ve stopped being an elective about 30 years ago and it definitely needs to stop today.  It is an essential part of our education.  We want to make sure that the children of Missouri are being properly educated so they can compete in a modern workforce.”

      Kara Corches with the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry told House members Missouri is a top state for technology jobs with high rankings in both diversity, and women, in the tech workforce, and said HB 2202 would help build on that. 

      “Missouri is really moving up in the rankings and so our hope is to do everything we can to not just secure these rankings but even to continue to rise in those rankings and continue to attract and build tech talent.”

      The bill would also create the Computer Science Education Task Force to help shape schools’ approach to computer education. 

      “It develops a broad strategy.  Not just how do we come up with curriculums but how do we have a strategy on the whole for computer science opportunities for kids?” said Fitzwater.  “Coming up with how we, as a strategy, think about educating our kids in these developing fields.”

      That task force would be one entity that would receive demographic data to be collected under the bill.  Walsh Moore said she was glad to see the inclusion of that effort toward ensuring that children of color and girls are encouraged to enter the computer science and STEM fields. 

Fitzwater agreed, “We want to know what kids in the state are taking these classes.  That’s why it’s in the underlying bill and I’m glad it’s there.”

      HB 2202 also defines “computer science course” as any elementary, middle, or high school course that embeds computer science content with other subjects.   

Earlier story: Missouri legislature completes special session, sends two bills to Governor Parson (From 2018)

Committee hears plan to teach social media literacy, evaluating news

      A bill aimed at teaching children how to critically consider today’s constant stream of information and to be safe online has been presented to a House committee.

Representative Jim Murphy (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      St. Louis Republican representative Jim Murphy has proposed House Bill 1585, the “Show-Me Digital Health Act.”  It would instruct the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to create a curriculum on the “responsible use of social media.”

      Murphy said children are exposed to information from numerous sources and mediums, and often legislators discuss how to regulate that information.

      “I don’t care how much you try to regulate it it’s not going away and it’s not going to get better, it’s going to get worse, and if we’re not teaching our children how to process the information that they see – how to question it, how to verify it, how to not internalize it, we’re just going to get worse and worse and worse,” said Murphy.  “This is not about what the content of media is.  It’s about how to process media.”

      The Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education heard from Julie Smith, an instructor at Webster University in St. Louis who has authored books and offered numerous presentations on media literacy and news analysis.  She said “digital citizenship” is the term that’s been used for teaching children how to behave online.  She said Murphy’s bill would expand on the basics of “digital citizenship,” which tends to focus on being “nice” online.

      “Kids have been lectured since day one how to behave online.  They know.  Now we need to help them process this digital world that they live in,” said Smith.  “Digital citizenship already exists in Missouri schools but we need to help that go deeper.  We have to go beyond the ‘be nice online’ and help students examine not only how they use the media but how the media uses them.  This 21st century survival skill, these additional digital citizenship skills will not only increase and enhance their digital health but could potentially help preserve our republic.”

      She said a new curriculum would encourage children to read the terms of service for the websites and apps that they use and educate them about laws governing internet use; how websites and apps are designed to keep them online and make money off of them; how to spot and deal with fake accounts; and how to cope with anxieties and depression related to an online presence.

      The committee’s top Democrat, Paula Brown of Hazelwood, is a retired teacher with 31 years of experience.  She expressed concerns about adding to the already extensive curriculum from which teachers are expected to work.  

      Smith said the school districts with which she has worked have asked how to weave this education into existing curriculum, “So that if you’re a math teacher this is how you can do it, if you’re a science teacher this is how you can do it, so that it’s not an additional class and it doesn’t replace anything.  It merely enhances what already exists.”

      Brown said she would talk further with Smith about that, and would do further research into her concern about what additional cost the bill might create for individual school districts.   

      University of Missouri freshman William Wehmer said he believes as someone who just finished his K-12 education Murphy’s proposal is “much needed.”

      “As I made my way through my education I was faced with the abrupt uprising of social media and was given no tools as to how to handle myself online, what a digital footprint was, and most importantly how to respect others with differing opinions,” said Wehmer.

      The bill’s supporters include the Missouri School Boards Association and the Missouri Broadcasters Association.  Mark Gordon with the Broadcasters Association said its member radio and television stations think the bill would support their work on social media.

      “We’re licensed to serve and as a result of that we produce trusted information and the last thing we want is for people to be confused on a side-by-side issue, where they’re looking at something and they see postings from our members versus those from untrusted sources.”

      The committee has not voted on HB 1585.

Previous story: House proposal aims to teach youth responsible social media use, evaluating constant flow of information

House proposal aims to teach youth responsible social media use, evaluating constant flow of information

      A House member believes Missouri children should be taught in school how to deal with and scrutinize the constant stream of information with which they are faced every day.

Representative Jim Murphy (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      St. Louis Republican Jim Murphy believes all media has one thing in common:  that it was created by someone, and created for a reason.  He thinks children aren’t being equipped with how to figure out, in each case, what that reason is and how to deal with it.

      House Bill 1585 would create the “Show-Me Digital Health Act.”  It would have the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education create a curriculum on the “responsible use of social media,” but Murphy said his aim is to teach how to critically analyze information whether it comes through news, entertainment, advertising, or anything else.

“It’s about how you process the message.  We see things coming at children from so many different angles, and today they’re not being taught how to process that information, how to verify it, how to question why is it they’re receiving that message, what is it the person on the other end of that message is trying to make me do,” said Murphy.  “We’ve just gotta teach our kids to question, to verify, all of the different aspects of the information that’s being sent to them.”

Murphy’s bill would have DESE create a curriculum to cover things including the purpose and acceptable use of social media; identifying online misinformation; and applying protections for freedom of speech for online interactions in schools as provided by DESE. 

The bill also specifies that the bill should cover cyberbullying prevention and response.  Murphy said bullying goes beyond interactions between bullies and victims, but is fueled by what children see online.

“If they don’t fit into the mold of everything they see then they feel like they’re an outcast.  We don’t teach them that they’re not an outcast just because they’re seeing it out there.  It’s a very encompassing view, but if we’re not teaching our children to process all of the information as a whole, and questioning it as a whole, and understanding it as a whole, then they’re going to take some things personal and it can have catastrophic results,” said Murphy.   

“They have to understand that what they see and hear on the internet is meaningless in their lives, and we can teach that to them but we don’t.  We try to, instead, try to put a policy up that says you can’t put this information out there.  Well it’s out there anyway so we have to teach the people on the other side how to process it when it gets to them.”

      Murphy stresses he doesn’t believe this is a partisan issue.  He doesn’t want the curriculum to be tailored to favor information from any given sources, but to teach children to understand and dissect everything with which they are presented. 

      He said his legislation could be expanded to address teaching children how to be safe from online predators, scams, and other such threats. 

      HB 1585 would require Missouri schools to adopt such a curriculum for grades three to 12 by the 2024-25 school year and provide professional development to the teachers who would use the curriculum.   

      His bill has been prefiled to be considered in the session that begins Wednesday.

VIDEO: Parent speaks about bipartisan legislation on restraint and seclusion of students

A bipartisan effort to regulate when students can be restrained or isolated in Missouri schools is off to a quick start in the 2020 legislative session.

Representative Dottie Bailey (at podium) points to photos of some of the rooms that have been used in Missouri schools to isolate students. (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representatives Dottie Bailey (R-Eureka) and Ian Mackey (D-St. Louis) have filed identical bills that would ban the use of seclusion or restraint except when students, teachers, or staff face safety concerns.  House Bills 1568 (Bailey) and 1569 (Mackey) would also require that when such measures are used, all parties involved except students write a report on the incident, and require that parents or guardians be notified that the measures were applied to their student.

Mackey first filed the legislation last year, after media reports brought to light the use of those measures in Missouri.  He said in the last year he has seen “tiny, empty closets built and designed solely for the purpose of isolating small children,” in Missouri schools.

“If a teacher was notified on Wednesday morning by a child that that child’s parent had locked them in a closet and would not let them out, what would that teacher do?  I can tell you as somebody who spent nearly 8 years in the classroom teaching, myself, as a mandated reporter I would make an initial call to the [child abuse and neglect hotline],” said Mackey.  “Yet in our schools right now in this state, that’s happening day in and day out.”

House Bill 1568 will be heard Tuesday morning by the House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education.  This afternoon, Mackey and Bailey spoke to the media joined by parents who say their children have been restrained or secluded in an unacceptable manner.

They also displayed pictures of the some of the isolation rooms they have seen in Missouri schools, including one in the school that Shawan Daniels said her son was put in, in a Columbia school.

“Some kids have learning disabilities.  I don’t feel that a kid with learning disabilities should be put in this room because he acts a certain kind of way, because he’s not able to pick up on learning,” said Daniels.

Representatives Dottie Bailey (speaking), Ian Mackey (left) and Chuck Basye (center of photo) are joined by some parents who say their students were improperly restrained or secluded in Missouri schools. (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Daniels said she learned that her son had been restrained about three hours after the incident.

“He came home and told me that his arm was hurting.  Maybe 30 minutes later the teachers called and said that Antwan had been in an incident and they had to put him under restraint and the time that they gave me he was put in a restraint as like 1:00, and he makes it home around 3:45,” said Daniels.

The legislation would require districts to enact policies limiting the use of restraints and isolation, but does not propose penalties for violating those limitations.  Both representatives say they are open to adding language to create penalties.

“It’s an open conversation,” said Mackey.  “It’s reasonable to say that there would be a way for [the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] to review, to have a disciplinary system in place for reports that are made about teachers who misuse these rooms.  [Teaching is] a licensed profession.  Most licensed professions have disciplinary measures that at the greatest extent would cause your license to be either suspended or put on probation, or revoked.  I think that’s something we should look at,” said Mackey.

He said Illinois has had the same language he filed last year in its laws for 20 years but it was not being followed.

The lawmakers are enthused that this legislation is moving quickly in the first days of the legislative session that began last week.  They said it shows House leadership considers this an important issue.

“I think it’s awesome.  I think it’s great,” said Bailey.   “We hope it’s fast-tracked … kids and safety isn’t a bipartisan issue.  It’s just a human issue.  I couldn’t sleep at night if I heard this [when it was proposed last year] and I didn’t do anything about it, and I think Ian feels the same, so I’m thrilled to death to work with him … and to start out the session like this is great.”

The committee could vote on the legislation any time after the hearing is held on it.  Two House Committees approved Mackey’s proposal last year.

Earlier story:  House to consider restrictions on student restraint/seclusion in Missouri public schools

House to consider restrictions on student restraint/seclusion in Missouri public schools

The Missouri House will consider limitations on when the state’s public schools can restrain students or put them in seclusion.

Representative Dottie Bailey (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Two bills were prefiled for the session that begins next month, one by Representative Dottie Bailey (R-Eureka) and one by Representative Ian Mackey (D-St. Louis).  Missouri is one of 11 states that has no protective laws for students with disabilities.  It also has no law protecting against seclusion or restraint.

Bailey, who will be the vice-chair of the House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education, said she was disturbed by the stories she heard when Mackey presented his legislation during the 2019 session.

Bailey said she was surprised to learn how restraint and seclusion were being applied.

“It’s very archaic or medieval, whatever words you want to use,” said Bailey.

Mackey said advocates brought the issue to him and when he researched it, the stories he read were alarming, and many of them come from Missouri.

“I began to research it and quickly found story after story after story of children who had been locked in these rooms, these closets, without their parents knowing, for extended periods of time, for multiple days, in every part of our state,” said Mackey.  “It immediately became clear to me that it was an urgent issue and that it was an issue that we should address right away.”

Representative Ian Mackey (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bills 1568 (Bailey) and 1569 (Mackey) would ban the use of seclusion and restraint except when there are health or safety concerns for students, teachers, or staff; require that when restraint or seclusion are used that all parties involved except students write a report on the incident; and require the notification of parents or guardians of the incident within 24 hours.  It would allow parents or guardians access to all reports on the incident and the right to a meeting to review it, and allow them to file a complaint with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Bailey said just as important is that the legislation would put into state law a definition of seclusion and restraint.

“When you have a definition or there’s no definition at all, well anything goes.  Putting someone in a room for three hours, well you can just call that a ‘time out,’ because nothing is defined, so we’re going to put some structured guidance around that,” said Bailey.

Both lawmakers say there could be times when seclusion or restraint is necessary, so their bills don’t aim to bar it altogether.

“I think that there are a few stories that exist of children who can at some points be particularly violent, and obviously if a child is being violent and posing a direct, serious physical safety threat to others around them, then that’s an instance where that child needs to be removed and that’s what our bill allows for,” said Mackey.  “What we see happening … is kids are just doing kid things … they’re not exhibiting a threat to the extent that would require them to be locked away, and again without their parents even being notified.”

Two House committees passed Mackey’s legislation in 2019.  He and Bailey are optimistic their bipartisan effort can get a bill through the legislative process in 2020.

The new session begins January 8.

New law will affect school start dates beginning next year

Some schools will be starting classes later under a bill signed into law last month by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Jeff Knight (photo by Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Missouri law has allowed school districts to begin classes up to ten days before the first Monday in September, but an earlier start date could be set if a district’s board approves it in a public meeting.  A provision in House Bill 604 repeals that provision, and allows districts to set start dates no earlier than 14 days before the first Monday in September.

The provision was proposed by Lebanon Republican Jeff Knight, who said earlier start dates hurt two of the state’s top industries:  tourism and agriculture.

“The tourism dollars that are lost in August because these schools start earlier and earlier and earlier was becoming significant,” said Knight.  “There was some opposition from a lot of school groups talking about local control, but at the same time, we need those revenues to help fund schools.”

Knight said at least one study found a 30-percent decrease in July and August lodging tax collections at the Lake of the Ozarks over the last decade.  He compared that to changes in school start dates and saw that in that time, many districts that had been starting after Labor Day ten years ago were now starting around the second week of August.

“Big Surf water park testified during the committee that they actually closed the Big Surf water park last year August 13.  It wasn’t because people quit coming to Big Surf, it was more that all of their workers and employees were going back to school,” said Knight.

Knight said agriculture is also affected as students who would be working on farms are pulled away for classes during potential harvest periods.

“There are still people in our area, with the drought earlier last year and the rain situation of early this year, there’s still people cutting hay right now,” said Knight.

Knight said what can’t be measured in dollar amounts or percentages are the family vacations that might be altered by earlier start dates, and the memories and experiences families could be having together by being allowed more time in the summer months.  He said for many families, taking vacation in the spring simply isn’t as appealing.

“[School districts who opposed the change] would argue that we get out in the middle of May and you can make up for tourism in that, and my response was, ‘Have you ever jumped in the lakes or the rivers in the middle of May?’  They’re extremely cold … where in August, it’s still extremely hot.”

Knight, who is a former educator, said extending the start date cutoff from 10 to 14 days means districts can still start reasonably early.

“Ten days before the first Monday is a Friday.  Well, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to start school on a Friday.  14 days means you can start on a Monday, but you still gain, in some years, an extra weekend, and in some years, depending on how the holiday falls, two weekends,” said Knight.

The provision of HB 604 regarding schools’ start date doesn’t affect districts until the start of the 2020-21 school year.

House Committee considers legislation to stop abusive teachers from going to new districts

The Missouri House is looking for ways to keep schools from hiring people known to have sexually abused students while working in other districts.

Representative Rocky Miller and Missouri KidsFirst Director of Public Policy, Jessica Seitz. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 739 sponsored by Lake Ozark Republican Rocky Miller would require full disclosure between districts about former employees, and require a district to contact any district or charter school a person previously worked for, for background information.

Cara Gerdiman, Executive Director of Kids Harbor Child Advocacy Center, said with such requirements not already in place, some abusers are able to impact more children’s lives before being caught.

“Kids are put at risk and there’s lifetime consequences for that, ranging from mental health issues to medical issues to just their well-being, and the trauma that they’ve experienced,” said Gerdiman.

Jessica Seitz with Missouri KidsFirst told the House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education the bill would be another positive step toward protecting children in Missouri schools.

“According to a 2010 GAO report, on average a teacher offender will be passed to three different districts before being stopped,” said Seitz.

The bill would add 2.5 hours of training focused on sexual harassment to what is required of new school board members.  Returning school board members would be required to take at least one hour of refresher training annually.

Seitz said that increased training is one of the most important pieces of HB 739.

“Every organization that serves children, and particularly schools, must operate under the assumption that some people who sexually abuse children may work for them,” said Seitz.  “Organizations that serve children have an obligation to create an environment that is inhospitable to sexual abuse.  These environments must be nurtured from the top with leaders, such as the school board, who understand the risks and actively work to train staff and volunteers, and institute child protection policies.”

Gerdiman said board members will be better equipped to protect children with the additional training the bill would mandate, “so that they are more aware of the signs and symptoms of child abuse; the process of disclosure when a child is ready to talk about what has happened to them; as well as grooming behaviors that adult alleged perpetrators and juvenile perpetrators may use,” said Gerdiman.

The bill would also require annual, age appropriate sexual harassment training for students in grades 6 and up.  Some lawmakers questioned whether the legislation should include an option for parents to opt out of that training for their children.

HB 739 would specify that exemptions to Missouri’s open records law, or “Sunshine Law,” would not allow a district to withhold documents on a person if they relate to a confirmed violation of policies against abusing students.

“It’s just to make sure that you can’t hide behind the sunshine law if you’ve been abusive towards a student,” said Miller.

Lawmakers on the committee are also considering whether the bill should be broadened to include abuse not directed at students.

The committee will consider the legislation and potential changes to it at a future hearing, before voting on whether to advance it to the full House for debate.

Missouri legislature completes special session, sends two bills to Governor Parson

The Missouri legislature moved quickly to pass two bills that were the subject of a special session called by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Kevin Austin (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Parson called lawmakers back into session to reexamine issues covered in two bills he vetoed.  One of those would establish statewide standards for treatment courts, such as drug and veteran courts; the other would allow high school computer science courses to count toward graduation requirements for math, science, or practical arts credits.  The House voted on Wednesday to send those bills to the Senate, and today the Senate approved those bills without making any changes to them.  That means they go to Parson for his consideration.

Representative Kevin Austin (R-Springfield) sponsored House Bill 2, which deals with treatment courts.  Such courts in Missouri provide a court-supervised, comprehensive treatment program as an alternative to jail time.  Lawmakers and prosecutors agree the program is not an easy out for a defendant.

Over the years courts have been established in numerous districts in the state but without universal guidelines for how to operate.  HB 2 seeks to provide those.

“It allows the expansion of treatment courts to counties that don’t have it but would like to have it.  It also allows for the coordinating commission to establish best practices based on scientific research that’s been done on the effectiveness of treatment courts and what works and what doesn’t,” said Austin.  “It allows for more data collection as well, it allows for technical assistance from [The Office of State Courts Administrator] to these courts.”

Austin said one of his favorite parts of the bill is a transfer clause, which will allow defendants who are candidates for treatment courts but are in a circuit that doesn’t have them, to be transferred to a circuit which does have them.

“That is not going to result in just dumping from one county to another of these defendants.  It has to be agreed to by both the transferring county and the receiving county.  It has to be agreed to by the prosecuting attorney as well as the defendant,” said Austin.

Austin said treatment courts save lives and improve the quality of lives, and not just the lives of the defendants that go through them.

“There’s people that interact with that person every day.  Maybe it’s their family, maybe it’s their neighbors, maybe it’s the merchants who they might otherwise be shoplifting from, it’s us as taxpayers.  It affects all of us in a very positive way.  It’s a way that we can restore dignity and return this person to a productive life,” said Austin.

House Bill 3 would let computer science courses count toward math, science, or practical arts credits needed for graduation.  Under the bill students could begin in middle school to be prepared for the opportunities they could have in the job market.  Its sponsor, Holts Summit Republican Travis Fitzwater, has been working on STEM legislation for years.

Representatives Jeanie Lauer and Travis Fitzwater (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“I’m thrilled it’s done,” Fitzwater said on Wednesday after the House passed his legislation.

“What we need is broadening opportunities and this is doing that for kids … and at the heart of it that’s what I’m trying to accomplish with this bill,” said Fitzwater.

Representative Jeanie Lauer (R-Blue Springs) chaired the House Committee on Workforce Development and worked with Representative Fitzwater on the computer science portion of HB 3.  She said it could help move Missouri forward in workforce development.

“We know that from site selectors that are looking for where to place businesses that is the top item that they’re looking for in criteria is what is the workforce pool, and in order for us to be competitive not only within our state but with other states we have to increase the talent that we have, and this is certainly a step toward that,” said Lauer.

Parson announced on August 30 his call for the special session and legislators worked quickly to pass new versions of these bills that addressed the concerns he cited with his vetoes, while spending as little time as possible on the special session.  The session’s costs were lessened because it coincided with the constitutionally-mandated veto session.