Among the many challenges facing district leaders, student safety can be particularly difficult as new technologies allow for instant and constant communication. Recent tragic events, most notably the suicide of a Rutgers University student after an intimate sexual encounter was broadcast live via the Internet without his knowledge or permission, have brought increased attention and awareness of the danger of misuse of these technologies. But what can school districts do to protect students and staff without violating their constitutional rights?
The first defense is awareness. District leaders need to be aware of emerging technologies and how students are using them. While younger staff may be familiar with social media and emerging trends, not all are, and veterans may lack the necessary knowledge. Awareness can be improved by keeping lines of communication open between staff, students and parents.
The second essential element in protecting the school environment is education. The whole school community needs to be educated about the appropriate use of these powerful tools. Students need to be educated, since, in the cyberworld, it can be easy to lose sight of the human element and to neglect to consider the impact of a message or image. Adults may take for granted social-emotional skills that students may not yet have acquired.
It is also important to educate staff about the balancing act that can be involved in disciplining students for offcampus incidents that spill into school. Districts must navigate the line between protecting students from violence, intimidation and harassment, on the one hand, and preserving free speech and privacy rights, on the other.
While it has always been true that verbal or physical fights that happen at the mall could carry over to the school, the opportunity for conflict is even greater with the 24/7, anonymous nature of the Internet. Most states have enacted bullying and/or cyberbullying laws. Board members and staff need to know the requirements of state laws. Knowledge of the legal landscape frames the writing and implementation of policy, which is the third element in making the school environment safe in regard to technology. We recommend adopting and/or updating policies in the following areas:
Acceptable Computer Use and Internet Safety. All users should be required to read and sign a form acknowledging they agree to the terms of the policy. As a condition of receiving E-Rate federal funds, districts are required to use Internet filtering and monitoring mechanisms. More recently, the federal law was amended to add the requirement that districts teach students about cyberbullying and the risks associated with Internet use. These commitments should be established.
Code of Conduct. This code needs to define prohibited behaviors, including bullying, cyberbullying, academic misconduct (such as plagiarism), and possession or distribution of pornography. We don’t recommend a zero-tolerance approach to discipline, since age, prior disciplinary history, and extenuating circumstances may also be considered when determining what the consequences of the misbehavior should be.
Use of Personal Electronic Devices. Rather than drafting a cell phone policy, we recommend taking a broader approach by addressing the wide range of available technology (iPods, iPads, digital cameras, smartphones.). The board should consider whether these devices may be used as part of the educational program. If not, are they allowed on school grounds? Is there a time when it is acceptable to use? Will violating the policy result in confiscation?
Bullying Prevention and Intervention. Rather than taking a punitive approach to bullying, districts should take a proactive, positive stance. The school environment offers a great opportunity to educate and raise awareness.
A helpful resource is your state school board association, which should have sample policies on these topics. In addition, administrators must know what actions on their part are most likely to sustain a legal challenge. Accordingly, it is always advisable to contact the district lawyer and ask questions prior to acting.
While technology misuse can be overwhelming, there are tools that can help.
Jay Worona is the general counsel of the New York State School Boards Association, and Linda Bakst is the deputy director of policy services of the New York State School Boards Association.