Internet Access Raises Issue of Student Privacy
As students' access to the World Wide Web has grown, many schools have taken steps to block the inflow of pornographic or violent content that students may encounter.
Now, some districts are taking a firmer stand on information flowing the other way, from schools onto the Web.
The fear is that students' privacy may be infringed or that predators--pedophiles or other criminals, even relatives who have been legally barred from contact with students--will glean photographs and personal data about children and use that information to cause harm. A related fear is that schools could be held liable for resulting damages.
At issue are Web sites that present student projects and news about school activities. Some students put samples of their work on the Web to show college-admissions officers. Growing numbers of school newspapers and yearbooks have "gone virtual." And booster clubs are using the Web to generate community and team enthusiasm.
"Pedophiles certainly utilize every opportunity to force their will on children," said Larry K. Foust, an FBI special agent in Baltimore. "They do not distinguish between a school Web site and kids engaging in [on-line] chat at home."
Mr. 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 a child has been victimized because of a school Web site, Mr. Foust said there is reason for caution. The nation's problem with pedophiles, he said, is "systemic" and "not decreasing."
But, he added, educating students, teachers, and parents about cyberspace is the best protection, and he stressed that safety concerns should not deter students from using the Internet and its graphics-oriented portion, the World Wide Web. "You can't live your life in a box," he said.
Indeed, as schools try to protect their students, there is also concern that educators will overreact.
Douglas Everett, whose daughter is a cheerleader at Owen J. Roberts High School in Pottstown, Pa., thought he had a deal with the eastern Pennsylvania district to create a Web site for the school's cheerleading squad.
The parents all signed permission slips approving the use of their daughters' photographs and first names on the site.
But in September, after Mr. Everett had devoted a month to the project, Superintendent Terrance Furin told him that under a new district Internet policy, a school Web site could not include images.
Not taking rejection lightly, Mr. Everett posted the site himself as the Unofficial Owen J. Roberts 1997 Football Cheerleaders site. He has since launched what 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," Mr. Everett said. "These kids are growing up with this stuff. They should be given real-world experiences and Web sites that are world-class.''
He argued that the district officials are confusing the dangers of on-line "chat rooms," where children have had sexually oriented communications with adults in cyberspace, with what he considers the minimal risks posed by an on-screen image.
Mr. Everett said the cheerleading site--which features pictures of the girls performing cheers and stunts; biographies of the squad members; and instructional pages on cheerleading skills--has had 100,000 visitors in the past four months. Parents of three of the 15 cheerleaders have withdrawn permission to include their daughters, he said.
Mr. Furin, the superintendent of the 3,800-student Owen J. Roberts School District, said the district's policy does not allow any pictures of students to be shown on the Web and allows only first names with postings of student work. In fact, the district's only school Web site, at an elementary school, offers just one photograph: a room filled with computers, devoid of people.
Mr. Furin said Mr. Everett's initial site included not only students' names and pictures, but also their nicknames, hobbies, and places of work. "Even just the first name, but saying 'she works at Pizza Hut,'" the superintendent said, would identify a teenager in a small town.
Many districts have not yet turned to these issues, said June Million, the director of communications for the National Association of Elementary School Principals. "It's something people aren't thinking about," she said. "If the soccer team wins a trophy, they'll put them on their Web site."
Ms. Million has been collecting model policies and asking principals about their attitudes toward student information on Web sites. "I was concerned about our members' being sued," she said.
She said district Internet policies tend to focus on student and school personnel misuse of the Internet. "Schools think they have rules for Web sites. They have acceptable-use policies that they sent home and think they covered it. But they are confused," she said.
Some districts, however, have begun dealing with the privacy concerns.
The Janesville, Wis., schools ask parents' permission before putting a child's image on the Web, said Marnie Boylen, the 10,500-student district's coordinator of instructional technology. She said the policy stems not from fear of predators, but from privacy concerns under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and a parallel Wisconsin law.
The Dos Palos Oro Loma schools, a 2,500-student rural district near Fresno, Calif., has an informal policy of not posting students' names with photographs, said Paul Chounet, the district's technology coordinator. "Ours is mostly a school safety issue," he said.
The district makes an exception for high school Web pages, which he compared to running students' pictures in a newspaper. "We typically have pictures of our students in the newspaper with their names," Mr. Chounet said.
Though some educators fear the dissemination of information outside the local community,"we don't see a lot of difference between the local newspaper and a nonlocal newspaper," Mr. Chounet said. "The greatest fear would be from those in your community."
But he added that he recently sent an e-mail message to the technology coordinator in another district, whose Web site posted the names, pictures, and e-mail addresses of 4th grade students. "I thought it was totally inappropriate."
Elizabeth M. Whitaker, the coordinator for instructional technology for the Tucson, Ariz., schools, said officials there created guidelines for school sites last March, anticipating "the fact we were getting massive Internet access." All 40,000 Tucson students have Internet access, and though only 15 of the districts' 104 schools currently have Web pages, Ms. Whitaker said she expects that number to grow.
The guidelines remind schools to follow privacy laws on the Web, not to use students' last names, and to use photos only with permission from parents. Principals must approve school Web pages, Ms. Whitaker said.
She said the policy is consistent with district policies on releasing any student information.
Another impulse for the district's guidelines came last year, when 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 and other interests, and photographs.
"It was done in a very innocent kind of way," Ms. Whitaker said. "But when you looked at it from another angle they were almost personal ads." Administrators took the pages off the Web.
Though she has heard a complaint only from one parent about school Web sites, Ms. Whitaker said schools should not wait to be pushed. "Schools are tasked with creating a safe environment for kids."
But common sense should reign, she added. "You can get totally paranoid on this. People who might prey on them in a chat room on the Net are those who will prey on them in the two blocks from school."