JEFFERSON CITY — The inaugural Missouri Special House Committee on Student Accountability informally celebrated Safer Internet Day on Tuesday by hearing a bill aimed at teaching students appropriate online behavior.
“What you put on the computer stays on the computer,” said Rep. Elaine Gannon, R-DeSoto, a former school teacher and sponsor of House Bill 169. “That can affect their future, it can affect their ability to get a job.”
Committee members, many of whom are former educators, espoused overall strong support for the bill’s intent, with committee chair Bryan Spencer, R-Wentzville, naming it a priority piece of legislation.
Gannon said the bill primarily addresses social media interactions, but Rep. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, also pointed out a concern for students taking and transmitting inappropriate photos, which Gannon agreed should be included in the curriculum design.
Combating cyberbullying also entered the conversation when Rep. Ann Kelly, R-Lamar, pointed out the prevalence of students’ online communication.
“That’s where the bullying takes place, that’s where the suicide takes place,” Kelly said. “This is huge. It’s our fault that we haven’t educated our kiddos.”
The biggest concern among committee members was deciding when the online behavior classes should start.
Gannon announced Tuesday some slight changes to the language of the bill, which originally called for a required course in eighth grade and in high school. That plan would have cost around $65,000, so Gannon proposed stripping the upper-level course mandate to save money.
In the updated version, Gannon said it would require instruction at the teacher’s discretion beginning in the fourth grade, but eliminate the course requirements for eighth-graders and high schoolers.
Moon, however, suggested online behavior instruction could start even earlier than fourth grade, or as soon as students start using the internet.
“If they have access to school-provided computers, that needs to be there,” Moon said. “What they’re able to search needs to be controlled, to a degree.”
Kelly agreed on the timing.
“It needs to come before fourth grade. It needs to come as soon as they get their phone,” she said.
If passed, the legislation would establish a statewide “Internet and Social Media Awareness Program,” under the governance of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The department would work with the career and technical advisory council in crafting a curriculum and measuring its effectiveness.
Gannon, who taught junior high school physical education for over 30 years, was careful to emphasize that her bill is not intended to overload Missouri’s teachers with more requirements, but rather “empower them to do the right thing for students” and teach real-world skills.
Gannon told the committee that instituting an online behavior curriculum falls directly in line with Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s well-publicized workforce training development agenda and fills a gap in 21st-century public education instruction.
Posing a rhetorical question, she asked, “Is this not an area where students are expected to know something they have not been taught?”
Representatives from the Missouri National Education Association, Microsoft and St. Louis YouthBuild all testified in favor of the bill. Spencer, chair of the House committee, tasked three of the committee members to work with Gannon to fine-tune the legislation so it could move forward.