Safety Net

April 01, 1998 4 min read

Until recently, schools that give students access to the World Wide Web have been chiefly concerned with keeping pornographic or violent content out of the classroom. Now, some districts are taking steps to block information flowing the other way, from schools onto the Web.

At issue are Web sites that feature student projects and news about school activities. Some students put samples of their work on the Internet for the benefit of college-admissions officers. And growing numbers of school newspapers, yearbooks, and clubs have “gone virtual.”

These sites often contain a wealth of photographs and personal data—information that predators, pedophiles, and even relatives who have been legally barred from contact with students may use to cause harm. “Pedophiles certainly utilize every opportunity to force their will on children,” says Larry Foust, an FBI special agent in Baltimore. “They do not distinguish between a school Web site and kids engaging in [on-line] chats at home.”

Foust is a spokesman for the FBI’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Child Exploitation Task Force, which investigates on-line crimes against children. Though he knows of no case in which someone has abused a child using information from a school Web site, he says the nation’s problem with pedophiles is “systemic” and not likely to go away.

The agent suggests that schools educate students, teachers, and parents about cyberspace instead of banning kids from the Internet. “You can’t live your life in a box,” he explains.

Indeed, as schools try to protect their students, some observers worry that educators will overreact. Douglas Everett, whose daughter is a cheerleader at Owen J. Roberts High School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, thought he had a deal with the district to create a Web site for the school’s cheerleading squad. Parents signed permission slips approving the use of their daughters’ photographs and first names on the site.

But in September, after Everett had devoted a month to creating the site, district superintendent Terrance Furin told him that a new district policy barred posting images on a school Web site. Rather than abandon the project, Everett posted the electronic pages himself as the Unofficial Owen J. Roberts 1997 Football Cheerleaders site.

He has since launched a crusade to overcome what he calls “Internet paranoia” among school leaders. “Many people in power are threatened by this technology because they don’t understand it,” Everett contends. “These kids are growing up with this stuff. They should be given real-world experiences and Web sites that are world-class.’'

He argues that district officials are confusing the dangers of on-line “chat rooms,” where children can talk with adults in cyberspace, with what he considers the minimal risks posed by an on-screen image.

During a recent four-month period, the cheerleading site—which features pictures of the girls performing cheers and stunts, biographies of the squad members, and instructional pages on cheerleading skills—had 100,000 visitors, according to Everett. Parents of three of the 15 cheerleaders have withdrawn permission to include their daughters, he says.

The district’s new policy bans pictures of students on the Web and allows only first names to be posted with student work. Superintendent Furin says Everett’s initial site included not only students’ names and pictures but also their nicknames, hobbies, and places of work. Giving a cheerleader’s first name and her workplace would identify her in a small town, he argues.

School technology experts admit that many districts have not yet considered these issues. “It’s not something people are thinking about,” says June Million, director of communications for the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “If the soccer team wins a trophy, they’ll put them on their Web site.”

Million has been talking to principals about their Web sites and identifying model policies. “I was concerned about our members’ being sued,” she says.

The Internet policies of most districts, Million has found, focus on student and faculty misuse. Some, however, have begun to deal with student-privacy concerns. The Dos Palos Oro Loma schools, a small rural district near Fresno, California, has an informal policy of not posting students’ names with photographs, says technology coordinator Paul Chounet. “Ours is mostly a school safety issue.”

The district makes an exception for high school Web pages. Putting pictures on these pages and identifying the students is like running student pictures in the local newspaper, he explains. “We typically have pictures of our students in the newspaper with their names.”

Elizabeth Whitaker, instructional technology coordinator for the Tucson, Arizona, schools, says officials there created guidelines for school sites last year. The document reminds schools to follow privacy laws on the Web, not to post students’ last names, and to use photos only with permission from parents. Principals must also approve school Web pages.

The guidelines, according to Whitaker, are consistent with the district’s procedures on releasing student information. But school officials didn’t write their Web policy until 8th graders in a technology class learned how to create personal home pages. The pages, which the students posted on the Web, included their names, hobbies, interests, and photographs. “It was done in a very innocent kind of way,” Whitaker says. “But when you looked at it from another angle, they were almost personal ads.” Administrators took the pages off the Web.

Although only one parent has complained about school Web sites, Whitaker believes educators should not wait to be pushed. “Schools are tasked with creating a safe environment for kids,” she says. Still, common sense should reign, she adds. “You can get totally paranoid on this. People who might prey on kids in a chat room on the Net are those who will prey on them in the two blocks from school.”

—Andrew Trotter