At some point we’re just going to have to trust people to do what’s right when it comes to use of the Internet in schools. In my district we have spent countless hours keeping our appropriate use polices up to date, implementing the latest in filtering technology, and monitoring to the best of our ability, what people are doing while they’re on the Internet. We have had Internet connections available for students and staff since 1995. During that time we have had only a handful of appropriate use violations.
Is all the time and effort to keep the system locked down really productive? As we have provided increased technology for our staff and encouraged them to use the technology in their classroom instruction, the number of complaints over blocked sites has skyrocketed. The number of appropriate use violations has remained very low.
A typical scenario goes like this. A teacher searches the web and finds some great video resources to support a planned lesson. What better way to use the new classroom projector? After spending hours in preparation, the teacher arrives at school excited about the new infusion of technology into the instructional process. Trying to access the resources at school, up comes a message that the content is blocked for one of many reasons—none of which make sense to the disappointed teacher and students. Requesting to unblock sites is somewhat cumbersome and unpredictable. Maybe we need to lighten up a bit. Perhaps it would make more sense to have teacher computers unblocked and then take action if we find there is abuse.
For students the issue is a bit more problematic. We are required to have Internet filters on computers for student use. The trust factor is a bit more dicey with students. However, we have not had many instances of inappropriate use of the Internet by our students.
I’m sure we can strike a balance between protection and access if we really try. So in my district, that is what we are going to do. If a teacher wants access to YouTube, the teacher will get access. If the teacher chooses to visit inappropriate sites, we will deal with that teacher rather than blocking access for everyone. Students, at least for now, will have to live with the restrictions. However, when they need to visit a site to make a presentation or report, they can always use the teacher’s computer with supervision. Hopefully this will turn out to be a common sense approach that allows teacher to take advantage of some wonderful online resources. Or, it could make my last year as Superintendent very challenging.
Does your district provide cell phones to employees? A ruling by the U.S. Supreme on June 17, 2010 may impact you. The court agreed unanimously that governmental agencies may access and read an employee’s text messages under certain circumstances.
The case that was brought to the Supreme Court involved a police officer in Ontario, California whose text messages were reviewed when department officials became concerned that SWAT team officers were using department-issued pagers for too many personal text messages. And sure enough, in one month alone, of the 456 text messages sent or received by the officer in question, 400 were personal.
The city does have a policy stating that employees have no guaranteed right of privacy when using communication devices provided by the department, but officers had been told informally that their messages would not be audited as long as they paid for additional charges. So the officer and three others sued the department for violating their constitutional right to privacy. A lower court ruled in the officer’s favor, but the Supreme Court reversed that decision on the premise that the search itself was reasonable.
The decision is the court’s first related to Digital Age technologies and 4th amendment guards against unreasonable search and seizure. While the court did not provide broad guidance on employees’ privacy rights, the decision did identify conditions that must be met before government agency may review an employee’s personal texts. They are:
• The cell phone must be provided by the agency.
• The employee must be told in advance that any messages sent using the device may be monitored by management.
• There must be a legitimate work-related reason for reviewing the messages.
As increasing numbers of education agencies provide cell phones to some employees, it is critical that policies be created that outline acceptable use and privacy expectations. It is equally important that these policies be enforced in an even-handed, consistent way.
How does your agency handle this issue?
Two recent legal cases present as cautionary tales concerning technology, civil rights, and the school’s role in loco parentis.
Evans v. Bayer involves a former student of Pembroke Pines (FL) Charter High School. Katherine Evans created a Facebook account to express her dislike for a certain teacher at the high school. “But instead of other students expressing their dislike of the teacher,” writes Hannah Sampson of the Miami Herald, “most defended the teacher and attacked Evans.” Ms. Evans subsequently took down the Facebook page. Principal Peter Bayer later learned about the Facebook page and removed Ms. Evans from advanced placement classes and suspended her for three days.
Ms. Evans sued Principal Bayer for violating her civil rights under the 1st and 14th amendments, stating she had created the Facebook page after school, away from campus, using her computer. The court agreed.
In Blake J Robbins v. Lower Merion School District student Blake Robbins and his parents sued the Pennsylvania school district for “secretly viewing [the student] at home via webcams on school-issued laptops.” The district had issued all students at both its high schools laptop computers, each equipped with a built-in video camera.
According to a CBS News story, Harriton High School administrators accused Robbins of selling drugs and taking pills and stated they had images to prove it. The student said the pictures show him eating candies.
Robbins and his parents allege that district employees, without parental knowledge or consent, remotely activated the camera on the student’s school-issued laptop and captured still images of family members in embarrassing and compromising situations. The court issued an order prohibiting the district from “remotely activating, or causing to be remotely activated,” webcams on laptop computers issued to its students. The case continues and you can follow it at Justia.com.
As school administrators, we need to take a lesson from both these cases. Whether we’re dealing with how students are using technology or how we are using it ourselves, we need to clearly understand the limits of in loco parentis.