Don’t Get Caught In the Web: Drafting Effective Acceptable Use Policies – By: Christi Flaherty

Published by MARE, May 2011

Unless you live under a rock, you’re keenly aware of some of the problems that technology is quickly causing in our nation’s schools.  With cell phones, iPads, laptops, netbooks and smartphones, technology has gone completely portable – and it’s walking through the hallways of your schools.  In fact, it is now estimated that today’s youth spend more time online than they do in front of the television!

Technology is here to stay – there is no arguing that it can be an effective tool to implement curriculum and communicate with today’s busy parents.  However, schools must be able to combat the perils of student and employee technology use, including cyberbullying, cheating, harassment, and inappropriate student-teacher relationships.  The first step in the process is creating an effective and enforceable Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) for both students and staff.

Use of the District’s equipment is relatively easy to monitor and regulate with firewalling and administrative privileges that allow access to anything and everything accessed with the District’s equipment and connections.  Students and staff should be made aware, both through policies and through postings near the actual equipment, that the system can and will be monitored for appropriate use.

The AUP should also indicate that use of the District’s technology – including its equipment and connection – are a privilege and not a right.  Unlike rights, privileges can be more easily taken away if abused.

Student computer “free time” should be discouraged at every grade level.  Along these same lines, the AUP for staff should indicate that technology use must be consistent with the District’s curriculum.  Computers are no different than text books – they are another tool to implement curriculum.  They are not a babysitter or another form of student recess.  Teachers should be required to integrate web access into their lesson plans; if part of the day’s lesson includes a visit to a particular web site in order to better implement the lesson, then the written lesson plan should indicate the web site and the teacher should research the web site prior to the instructional period in order to ensure that the content on the site is appropriate for the lesson and for the age of the students participating therein.

Both staff and student AUP’s should restrict the use of social networking and private emails to communicate school business.  Emails sent to and from staff regarding student progress are arguably “education records” under FERPA, record that contains “information directly related to a student and which are maintained by an educational agency or institution or by a party acting for the agency or institution.”  Thus, those emails are subject to the care and weeding requirements of FERPA just as if they were created just like traditional education records.  For this reason, the District must be able to access the emails, which is only possible if the District’s own email system is being used for such communications.

In the author’s opinion, social networks and schools mix like oil and water.  There is no place for MySpace, Facebook and the like in the classroom.  Many of the inappropriate relationships between students and teachers that the author has investigated over the course of the last ten years have begun online – a “friend request” on Facebook, or an instant message through MySpace.  Thus, both the student and staff AUP’s should indicate that social networking between students and staff is prohibited.  This not only discourages students from initiating communications through social networks, but also helps to alleviate the pressure on the staff member who receives such a communications request as he or she can simply advise the student that Board policy prohibits it.

Both the staff and student AUP should list examples of inappropriate use.  For example, the viewing, uploading, downloading and dissemination of pornography on or through District equipment will never be an “acceptable” use.  Likewise, cursing should be included as an unacceptable use.  Other examples include the encouragement of “netiquette” when communicating on or through the District’s equipment.

Consequences for violating the policy should be spelled out.  For students, the policy should include a statement that violation of the policy will result in disciplinary action that could include a revocation of privileges and/or expulsion.  For staff, the policy should indicate that violation of the policy could result in disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.

Finally, the AUP should be signed every year.  For students, both the student and the parent should sign the policy.  Although the policy may be reiterated and incorporated into a student handbook, the author advises schools to disseminate it separately from other registration material each year, and has even counseled districts to print it on colored paper.  All of these suggestions alert the student and the parent to the importance of the policy and help ensure that both the student and the parent understand their mutual responsibility and accountability that comes with the privilege of using the District’s equipment and connections.  Annual updating and signing of the policy is encouraged simply because of the nature of the beast – what is current technology today is outdated within the year!  At what age should students be required to sign the AUP?  The author’s opinion is that if the child is old enough to use the equipment, they are old enough to sign the AUP.  Even a kindergartener is capable of writing his or her first name, with assistance.

For staff, annual signage of the AUP is recommended for similar reasons.  Staff need to be reminded of the role of technology and their responsibility in using it in and out of the classroom.  Explanation of the policy at orientation is recommended, and may be readdressed at in-services throughout the year.  This Firm provides such in-service opportunities for students, staff and even parent groups.

Technology can certainly be a useful tool to assist in implementing the District’s curriculum, but with the use comes responsibility.  School Districts must safeguard their resources – their equipment, their staff and their students – from inappropriate use through Acceptable Use Policies.

© 2011 Mickes Goldman O’Toole, LLC

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