Electronic Media Policies

In a disturbing matter that has been playing itself out since February, the parents of a high school student in Pennsylvania have sued the school district for spying on their son with a Webcam.

In the suit, the parents noted that all high school students in the district receive MacBook laptops equipped with iSight Webcams. The parents then asserted that the district remotely activated the Webcam in the laptop issued to the student and took pictures of him at home.

According to the complaint, an assistant principal called the boy in and accused him of using and selling drugs. When making the charge, the principal showed the boy a photograph taken by the laptop Webcam. The boy insisted that the photo showed him eating candy, not taking drugs.

In February, a federal judge ordered the school district to stop activating the Webcams.

A report subsequently commissioned by the district to investigate the use of the Webcams found copies of more than 30,000 Webcam photographs and 27,000 screenshots stored in files in the district’s Information Services (IS) Department.

The report concluded that the district had not been spying on students. Instead, it blamed “the district’s failure to implement policies, procedures and recordkeeping requirements,” and IS personnel who used the technology “without any apparent regard for privacy considerations or sufficient consultation with administrators.”

K-12 school districts across the country today assemble powerful electronic networks enabling district-owned computers to communicate and browse data at sites around the world by way of e-mail, intranets and the Web. Students and staff may also access these systems with their personal computers and smart phones with voicemail, texting and photographic capabilities.

Such systems, of course, offer great educational benefits, but they also pose safety and security risks. Students and staff can misuse electronic media and endanger their personal safety by falling prey to online predators. Misuse can also involve cyber stalking, cyber bullying, criminal enterprises and, as noted above, breathtaking lapses in judgment.

In an attempt to reduce these kinds of risks to students, federal and state laws require that school districts actively manage and monitor how students use school district technology.

While not necessarily required by statute, districts often implement policies that specify the ways in which staff can use district electronic media as well.

Managing the use of district technology begins with the development of acceptable use policies (AUPs).

Among the federal statutes that touch on AUPs are the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

According to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) summary of CIPA, “Schools subject to CIPA are required to adopt and enforce a policy to monitor online activities of minors.”

The FCC summary also discusses CIPA’s requirement for adopting and implementing an Internet safety policy addressing access by minors to inappropriate materials on the net, safety and security of minors using e-mail, chat rooms and other electronic communication tools, hacking and illegal activities by minors, privacy matters and measures taken to restrict access to materials that may be harmful to minors.

Restricting access to harmful materials is key to CIPA compliance, and an adequate AUP must specify the measures that the school takes to block or filter access to pornography and other materials deemed harmful to minors.

Developing Student AUP
“We created a task force to write AUPs for students several years ago,” says William Boyer, executive director of technology services for Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS) in Frederick, Md. “The group included teachers, media techs, curriculum specialists and administrators. We all took part in the writing and editing.”

When the task force completed its work, the results went before the Superintendent’s Advisory Council, which included the district superintendent, parents, board members and district administrators.

Finally, the AUP went to the Board of Education for approval.

Recently, Boyer initiated the process again to update the AUP to deal with emerging issues including cyber bullying, cyber stalking and Web 2.0 sites that enable students to post their thoughts on the Web. These include blogs, wikis, podcasts and social networking systems.

Basically, an AUP lays out the way in which a school or school district intends to protect students from harm while using electronic media. It specifies methods of supervising students, blocking and filtering Web sites and lists what students must do and what they must not do while using these tools.

An AUP policy also specifies penalties for failing to adhere to the policy. Penalties cited typically involve suspension of telecommunications privileges, disciplinary action and possible legal action.

Finally, AUP policies call for parents and students to read the policy, agree with it and sign statements. The parent’s signature typically covers a statement accepting responsibility for helping to teach a student how to use technology properly and according to the school policy. The student’s signature agrees to abide by the rules laid out in the policy.

The Dollar Value of Your Student AUP
While the primary value of a student AUP lies in managing the risks students may face in using electronic media, there are financial reasons to implement and enforce such a policy. These include E-rate discounts and grants that fund technology under the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program.

“The local (AUP) policies are important when applying for money under E-rate and EETT,” says Stephanie Papas, a program consultant with the California State Department of Education in Sacramento.

Schools — as well as libraries — affected by CIPA must certify that they have an Internet safety policy in order to receive federal E-rate discounts. The E-rate is a 20-percent to 90-percent discount given to schools (and libraries) for telecommunication services, including access to the Internet. The federal budget allocates more than $2 billion per year to E-rate funding, notes Papas.

According to the FCC, CIPA doesn’t affect E-rate funding for schools receiving discounts only for telecommunications such as telephone service.

EETT is a competitive grant program that funds technology initiatives designed to enhance learning in grades four through eight. Student AUPs must be submitted with EETT grant applications.

AUPs are also useful addenda for school district technology plans. “The state of Maryland requires districts to submit an updated technology plan every three years,” says Boyer of FCPS. “The plans cover our goals for acquiring and installing technology, and I usually mention our policies on acceptable use. Today, it is important to mention that your policy covers current issues such as cyber bullying, cyber stalking and sexting.”

AUPs for District Staff
As the Webcam spying scandal in Pennsylvania illustrates, assuming that adult staff will use electronic media responsibly is probably an error. An acceptable use policy for staff must outline what district employees, from faculty to media technicians to administrators, may or may not use district technology to do.

The FCPS policy restricts employee use of these systems to “appropriate academic, research and employment-related activities” consistent with federal, state and local laws and policies. It also encourages users to take advantage of the benefits offered by modern electronic media by exploring educational topics, conducting research and communicating with others “in the context of their professional duties.”

Next comes a list of guidelines for appropriate use followed by a section highlighting violations.

The closing section discusses penalties for violations of the policy.

Changing Policies

Because technology advances so quickly, policies governing the use of electronic technologies in schools must advance as well.

For instance, an issue being considered (but not yet acted on) in the FCPS system involves cell phones. Because of problems that could arise from the use of cell phone cameras in locker rooms and the emerging problem of sexting, FCPS has implemented a policy of prohibiting students from carrying active cell phones in school.

“This is being debated in the educational community right now,” says Boyer. “The data capabilities of smart phones and tablet devices might be extremely useful in providing curriculum content. And today, it is possible to turn off features such as cameras and texting, while still using the device for research.”

Boyer suspects that as time passes, acceptable use policies for cell phones as well as emerging tablet devices will permit use as a research tool while maintaining the restrictions on cameras and texting.

In the end, acceptable use policies do not simply restrict how students and staff use technology. They also enhance the way powerful educational tools can help educate students about the modern world.