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 votes to restrict seclusion, restraint of students

      The Missouri House has voted to tell schools in the state to enact guidelines on when students may be secluded or restrained, and to require that when it happens, the student’s parents or guardians must be notified.  The bipartisan effort began when practices that one lawmaker called “archaic” came to light.

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

      The chamber approved 149-1 House Bill 387 filed by Representative Dottie Bailey (R-Eureka).  It would require schools to have policies in place for when a student can be placed in seclusion or restrained, and that those things only happen when there is imminent danger of harm to the student’s self or others.

      In addition to the notification requirement the bill also includes protections for those who report violations of that policy.

      “Unfortunately … some of these school districts have used seclusion and restraint for discipline and time outs and punishment.  So imagine a child that already has problems interpreting the world – a kiddo with autism – then being punished for that non-interpretation and disciplined, and thrown into a box,” said Bailey.  “Not only are these archaic … and need to be done away with for punishment, there are many, many other alternative therapies that have been used, that have been proven to be adequate and without hurting the child and hurting their growth and not traumatizing them further.”

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

      Representative Ian Mackey (D-St. Louis) brought the issue to the legislature after seeing reporting on the practices in some schools.  He and Bailey worked to bring the legislation forward.  He said most schools in Missouri haven’t been doing anything wrong and won’t have to change any practices because of this bill.

      “This bill goes after a handful of irresponsible bad actors who regularly misuse these rooms and who regularly put kids in these rooms as punishment, which violates their own policy but up until now there’s no remedy for that.  This is a remedy for violations of those policies,” said Mackey.

      Similar legislation passed out of the House last year and was approved by a Senate committee before COVID interrupted the normal business of the 2020 session.

      Bailey said it was important to add to this year’s bill the protection for those who bring to light misuses of restraints and seclusion.  She said teachers who brought evidence of violations to a House committee last year faced retaliation.

House members saw photos of seclusions rooms that had been used on Missouri students in this 2020 press conference. (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “We saw urine-filled, stained rooms.  We saw drab, horrible things, and then you hear from the teachers telling this story, and I give those teachers so much credit because they took their own careers in their hands because they care about these kids,” said Bailey.  “I’ve kept in touch with a couple of them and yes, retaliation has occurred.”

      Hazelwood representative Paula Brown (D), a retired school teacher, said she saw retaliation against teachers who spoke out against seclusion.

      “I, for one, was not retaliated against when I reported to the school administration that a kid was locked in a dark closet but I do know that it does happen, and I was probably only not retaliated against because I happened to be president of the teachers’ union at the time,” said Brown.  “I’m urging the body to support this bill.  It is a wonderful bill and it will protect children, and it will protect teachers.”

      HB 387 also adds a prohibition to “prone restraint,” not seen in last year’s legislation.

      The bill now goes to the Senate.

Earlier stories:

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

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

House approves bill meant to stop school-to-school movement of child abusers

The House has proposed that school districts open up lines of communication with one another to stop employees with a history of abusing students from going from one district to another.

Representative Rocky Miller (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

That is one of the things House Bill 739 aims to accomplish, according to its sponsor, Representative Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark).

“This bill would allow for school districts to contact an employee’s former employers from a list supplied by [The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education].  The schools would be required to disclose the actual violation of the schools’ regulations as it pertains to sexual misconduct with a student,” said Miller.

The legislation has the support of various child advocacy groups, who told lawmakers that right now, schools cannot share such information about former employees.  This often allows individuals with a history of abuse to find jobs in other districts and to abuse more children.

One of Hazelwood Democrat Paula Brown’s previous jobs was in human resources in a school district.  She said she was often in a terrible position.

“When someone calls to check a reference the only thing that we can reply with is, ‘We would not rehire them,’ with no explanation further than that,” said Brown.  “This will free up HR directors and assistant superintendents to speak the truth.  It will allow people not to be hired in other districts when they were fired from a different district,” said Brown.

“I think what we’re doing is not only saving children but affording school districts an opportunity not to be sued at the rate they are being sued at this point,” said Brown.

One provision added on the House Floor would require criminal background checks of anyone who volunteers with a school district, if that person will have regular or one-on-one contact with students or access to student records.

Representative Kathy Swan (R-Cape Girardeau) sponsored that amendment.

“We require background checks on school administrators, teachers, teachers’ aides, assistants, secretaries, cooks, bus drivers, and custodians, but not volunteers,” said Swan.

Representative David Wood (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Another piece added by the full House extends the definition of those who can be found guilty of abuse to include any person who developed a relationship with a child through school, even if the abuse did not occur on school grounds or during school hours.

Representative David Wood (R-Versailles) said this would close a “loophole” child advocates described to him.

“If the offense would happen on school grounds that’s easy enough to take care of, but when the offense happens off those school grounds, there’s been four cases in the last two years that [investigators have] had a lack of a preponderance of evidence,” said Wood.

The bill adds two-and-a-half hours to the training required of new school board members, which would be focused on identifying signs of sexual abuse and potentially abusive relationships between adults and children.  It would also require an hour of refresher training, annually.

Finally, the bill requires schools to offer students trauma-informed, developmentally appropriate sexual abuse training for grades six and above.  Parents who don’t want their children to receive that training could choose to opt-out of it.

The House voted 150-4 to send the bill to the Senate.

Earlier story:  House committee considers legislation to stop abusive teachers from going to new districts