Bill would limit how students and teachers can communicate

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A bill making its way through the legislature aims to curb child sexual abuse by barring school employees from communicating with students using electronic means that aren’t approved by a school district.

The legislation comes in the wake of a high-profile incident in the West Valley in which a 27-year-old teacher used text messages to prey on one of her 13-year-old students, and grew out of a task force discussion last year of ways to combat child sex abuse.

Senate Bill 1503 would prohibit a “school employee, a substitute teacher or a volunteer serving in the capacity of a school employee” from using platforms not approved by the school to “directly engage in electronic communications with a pupil” for purposes that are other than academic or extracurricular activities. 

“This really is a modest proposal,” Glendale Republican Sen. Paul Boyer, the bill’s sponsor, said while defending his bill Monday on the Senate floor. 

But critics said it could create more problems than it seeks to solve, particularly in schools with high rates of poverty.

“A lot of times, for some kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds… sometimes the only adult in their life is that educator, that coach or music educator in their school,” Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said. “I’m worried that might take away from a lot of that when kids need that the most.”

The bill would make it illegal for school employees to use “personal technologies, mobile technologies or social media websites to interact online or communicate directly with a pupil,” and also prescribes how a school or district can determine if communication was appropriate or not. 

The bill requires districts to create policies for disciplining school employees who run afoul of the law, unless the communication was criminal in nature. 

“I love the idea that there are lots of great teachers out there that would call up a student and say ‘I believe in you and do great at the game,’” Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, said. “I don’t want to take away a method of supporting our students, but I think the risk here is too great.” 

Education advocacy groups are neutral on the bill. 

“We recognize that this is an issue that is out there,” Chris Kotterman, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, told the Senate Education Committee last month. “This just gives the governing board a tool.” 

Kotterman said that most districts and schools have similar policies in place, and the bill just puts those policies into state statute. 

When questioned by Quezada why it would be needed in state law if schools were already enforcing a similar policy, Boyer said that it was to give the policy the “force of law” and to make it “crystal clear” on what the policy is. 

“We are not eliminating the ability for teachers to talk to their students, we are just telling them these are the means (with) which to talk to your students,” Boyer said. 

Last year, Goodyear sixth-grade teacher Brittany Zamora made headlines when it was discovered she had been grooming students for sex through text messages. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison for molesting a 13-year-old male student on multiple occasions. 

The Senate approved SB1503 17-13. It now heads to the House of Representatives. The bill was written to include an emergency clause so it would go into effect immediately, but it failed to win the 20 votes needed in the Senate.