Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Arlington County (VA) schools issue new Internet use policy, with some attention to off-campus speech

The Arlington County Public Schools (Virginia) has announced an Internet acceptable use policy for students and employees. It is noteworthy because it is fairly typical of the careful, measured, and sometimes hesitating approach that public school districts, particularly in pluralistic and politically moderate areas like Arlington, must take in handling a potentially dangerous and unsettling issue. There were specific procedures and requirements, spelled out by the Virginia General Assembly in legislation, that had to be followed in developing this policy and documents.

The strike page for the policy is this. The first paragraph deserves quoting in entirety: “Today's students will be the first generation to use the Internet for their entire lives. This unprecedented access to resources will enhance learning, research, communications, exploration of new ideas and expressions of creativity. Unfortunately, this remarkable resource has become susceptible to abuse that often targets young people.” The page offers the tagline, “Check before you click!” There is a conspicuous link to a PDF document “Acceptable Use of Electronic Networked Resources.”

Most of the guidelines for dealing with unacceptable content on campus are familiar with all employers. The school district does filter unacceptable material, in accordance with the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Mechanisms exist for administrators or teachers to request blocking of specific material I didn’t see any specific mention of blocking social networking sites per se, but many school districts block them on campus, as well as “amateur” blogs (like this), sometimes using curriculum approval as justification.

Probably the most relevant item for outside or off-campus electronic speech is under “Areas of Responsibility,” item 12. “APS is not responsible for student or staff use of electronic technology resources outside of school. However, staff or students may be disciplined for any technology use that negatively affects APS or that negatively affects the fitness or ability of any staff person to effectively serve the school division.”

Some of what this refers to will be “common sense.” One merely thinks about tragic events in the nation the past ten years. Other items seem more ambiguous. Should a school discipline a student if a Myspace page shows underage drinking? It seems that such discipline should come from parents, not schools. Sometimes parents fail.

For teachers, the issue is particularly troubling. The “between the lines” inference seems to be that teachers must serve as personal role models for students. But to some extent “role model” is a concept that will vary among parents. The ambiguity of this concept has already appeared with previous news reports (discussed on this blog) from Virginia, Florida and South Carolina. School districts should give some specific examples of what kinds of content would be construed as conveying unsuitability. Like it or not, this whole area reminds me of the contortions that the Pentagon went through in 1994 in trying (actually in good faith at the time) to craft policies to implement the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military, and trying to decide what statements constituted (in the military frame of reference) “homosexual conduct.”

There is also an issue with substitutes, especially short term subs, who are paid less, work less steadily, generally do not have much authority, and may not perceive themselves as “role models” in the sense that is expected by some parents. This has cropped up around the country as a problem with subs, as with a case in New Jersey with a sub who appeared on the Dr. Phil show.

In early 2005, while I was subbing, I raised, in an essay on my site, the possibility that, because Congress codified certain language into federal law with the 1993 “don’t ask don’t tell” statute for the military, teachers who had “self-outed” might be in a legally compromising situation if they had to give custodial care to disabled students (in certain limited special education environments). I refused all assignments that could place me in that position. I believe that one middle school principal in Arlington found this, as my assignments at that one school got repeatedly cancelled. I can understand her concern if I raised such a speculative legal question in public with respect to myself, but I felt it was necessary to do so to demonstrate the potential “malignancy” of the DADT law in areas even outside the military. Later, I received apparently unrelated complaints from two other middle schools about the inability to maintain classroom discipline (this is discussed on my main blog July 26, 2007 – please see the Profile and archive links). I eventually resigned in the fall of 2005, and subbed in another district (with an interruption explained on the July 27 entry on that blog) intermittently until 2007. In that district, I encountered an issue when a principal discovered a piece of “fiction” on my site which she construed as “real” or as evidence of or “admission” of unsuitability. The legal term for this kind of problem is “implicit content” and it is a very gray and unexplored area in Internet law. The basic problem is that others (such as minors or parents) may misconstrue content that they find randomly with search engines because they do not understand the full context with which the speaker intended a particular item to be understood, as one would in reading books or magazine articles in the print world.

All of this, indeed, begs the question of “reputation defense” or “online reputation management,” which employers are starting to address; some employers may expect or require key associates to accept professional management of their “online reputations.” Should the same be expected of teachers?

School administrators have some autonomy, and may be permitted (especially with substitutes, in many school districts) to apply their own personal interpretation of teacher “implicit content” or “reputation” without formal guidance from the legal department of a school district.

That’s why school districts need to be more specific as to how certain kinds of content will be construed when found randomly (even outside of campus) on public Internet spaces.

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