High Tech High Jinks

May 01, 1998 5 min read

As more and more students crowd onto the Internet to do research for school, a troubling minority are using cyberspace for pranks, vandalism, and other disturbing behavior.

These mischiefmakers are posing new disciplinary challenges for educators. Most teachers and administrators know how to respond to profanity and other forms of anti-social expression at school. But when it comes to e-mailed bomb threats, computer viruses, and vulgarities about students and faculty members posted on-line, they are often at a loss.

“Our principals have been very hands-offish about the Internet,” says Kenneth Wiseman, technology coordinator for District 214, a high school system outside of Chicago. “Many principals don’t understand what the Internet is.”

At the heart of the problem is the fact that students can tap into the Internet from virtually anywhere as long as they have a computer and modem. This is precisely what has made the global network so popular, but it also affords students more opportunities to circumvent authority.

“School officials are losing the ability to control all the environmental aspects of school,” says Nancy Willard, a researcher specializing in Internet-use policies at the Center for Advanced Technology in Education at the University of Oregon.

Della Curtis, coordinator of the office of library-information services for the Baltimore County schools in Maryland, is a seasoned Internet user. She spent two years researching and writing telecommunications policy for her 104,000-student suburban district. Yet she was taken aback last September when a school librarian showed her an e-mailed death threat that she had received.

Curtis confesses that she didn’t know who to turn to. “I asked, ‘What do we do, where do we go?’ ” she says.

In the end, the two librarians notified the district’s network administrator, who traced the message to a computer at the county public library. The sender, a student, was visited by police and disciplined by the district.

But with so little experience handling Internet issues, a number of teachers and administrators have run afoul of the law after they cracked down on high-tech pranksters. The 3,700-student Westlake, Ohio, schools, for example, recently agreed to pay $30,000 to Sean O’Brien, a high school junior who had posted a World Wide Web page on the Internet mocking his band teacher. District officials suspended Sean for 10 days, but a federal judge in Cleveland overturned that action after the student filed a $550,000 lawsuit against the district for interfering with his right to free speech. Sean agreed to drop the lawsuit as part of the cash settlement.

Principals have a legal right to censor student publications if they are produced as part of the curriculum--a right, experts say, that probably extends to school-owned Web sites. But a student’s right to express his or her opinion on a personal Web page is absolute, says Ann Beeson, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City.

The ACLU recently intervened in a case involving a McKinney, Texas, student named Aaron Smith, who had launched a Web page dedicated to “Chihuahua Haters of the World.” Aaron mentioned on the site that he’d used a computer at Dowell Middle School to create the page, and dog lovers bombarded the principal with e-mailed complaints. The administrator suspended the boy for a day and transferred him out of his computer class. The ACLU helped him get back into the class and the infraction removed from his record.

At Cashmere High School in eastern Washington state, principal Samuel Willsy recently suspended and punished six students for creating a list of “Persons Who Deserve To Die and How.” A student anonymously posted the list--which assigned satirical, often vulgar “death sentences” to students identified only by their first names--on a commercial Web site. The local sheriff’s office investigated but decided no crime had been committed.

Willsy says that he wasn’t sure the suspensions would stand if they were challenged in court. But he felt compelled to punish the students, he says, to prove a larger point. “We actually dispense discipline in this school to show support for community values, to establish what we will accept and not accept, to hold students accountable, and to quickly teach an appropriate lesson.”

None of the students’ parents, Willsy says, exercised their right to appeal the suspensions. “The advantage that we have is the parents of these kids were as shocked and dismayed as everyone else.”

According to Don Tapscott, author of Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation, school officials are uneven in their responses to students’ Internet misbehavior because they are afraid of what they don’t understand. “Fear gets in the way of smart decisions,” Tapscott explains. “We do arbitrary things. We shut systems down, try and slap blocking software on them, rather than exploiting the opportunity to open communications with families and within schools, to strengthen the responsibility of youngsters, and to engage in important discussions about values.”

In Boulder Valley, Colorado, school officials are trying to dispel that fear by providing administrators with specific training for handling misbehavior on the Internet. Principals role-play different situations that can occur. In one scenario, a parent discovers that her child, a middle schooler, is conducting a torrid relationship with a high school student over the district’s e-mail connection. In another, a student uses a district computer to download other people’s passwords.

The scenarios are based on incidents that really happened in the 25,400-student district, says Libby Black, Internet specialist in Boulder Valley’s division of learning services. There is no single right way to react to the problems, she says, but the workshops help principals see similarities between Internet misdeeds and more familiar types of misbehavior. Downloading passwords is like stealing and should be handled similarly.

“There is no reason to have new rules,” Black says. “It’s less intimidating for administrators when you talk about it in that way.”

Since Internet use often involves the home as well as the school, experts emphasize the need to get parents involved in teaching kids appropriate Net behavior. “It’s not something that’s solely the responsibility of the school system,” says Joseph Villani, an official at the National School Boards Association and a former technology coordinator for the Montgomery County schools in Maryland. “Schools and parents need to work together to take an active role in reconstructing the kids’ view about what the Internet is for.”

This summer, the Baltimore County schools offered classes for parents on Internet safety and supervision. Says Curtis, the district’s coordinator of library-information services, “We need to make them aware that being a good parent is also being informed about this new type of technology.”

-- Andrew Trotter