Administrators Confounded by Internet Pranks

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

These mischief-makers are posing new disciplinary challenges for school administrators, most of whom are more accustomed to misbehavior expressed with a can of spray paint or a threatening note in someone's locker. When it comes to e-mailed bomb threats, computer viruses, and vulgarities about teachers posted on-line, they are often at a loss about how to respond.

"Our principals have been very hands-offish about the Internet," said Kenneth A. Wiseman, the technology coordinator for District 214, a 10,500-student high school district in suburban Chicago. "Many principals don't understand what the Internet is."

At the heart of the problem, experts say, is the fact that students can use the Internet from virtually anywhere, not just on school property, as long as they have a computer and a modem. This feature 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," said Nancy Willard, a researcher who specializes in Internet-use policies at the Center for Advanced Technology in Education at the University of Oregon.

Della A. Curtis, the coordinator of the office of library-information services for the Baltimore County, Md., schools, said that even educators experienced in the Internet can be stymied by on-line vandalism.

Ms. Curtis spent two years researching and writing a telecommunications policy for the 104,000-student suburban district. Yet she was taken aback last September when a school librarian showed her an e-mailed death threat she had received on her computer.

"I asked, 'What do we do, where do we go?'" Ms. Curtis said.

She ended up notifying the district's network administrator, who traced the message to a computer at the county public library. The sender, a student, was identified, visited by police, and disciplined by the district.

Free-Speech Issues

But with little experience in dealing with high-tech pranks, some administrators have overreacted and even run afoul of the law.

The 3,700-student Westlake, Ohio, schools, for example, recently agreed to pay $30,000 to Sean O'Brien, a junior at Westlake High School who had posted a World Wide Web page on the Internet that mocked his high school band teacher.

District officials had suspended Mr. O'Brien 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. Mr. O'Brien dropped the lawsuit as part of the settlement.

Principals have a legal right to censor student publications if they are produced as part of the curriculum--a right that probably extends to school-owned Web sites, experts say.

But a student's right to express his or her opinion on a personal Web page should never have been in doubt, said Ann Beeson, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City.

Ms. Beeson said the ACLU recently intervened in a similar case in McKinney, Texas, in which Aaron Smith, a student at Dowell Middle School, started the "C.H.O.W." Web page, dedicated to "Chihuahua Haters of the World."

The student mentioned on the Web page that he used a school computer to create the site, and dog lovers bombarded the principal with e-mailed complaints. The principal suspended the boy for a day and transferred him out of his computer class, but the ACLU helped him win readmission to the class and have the infraction removed from his school record, Ms. Beeson said.

In another instance, at Cashmere High School in eastern Washington state, Principal Samuel J. Willsy recently suspended six students for five to 10 days and imposed other penalties 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, Mr. Willsy said. The local sheriff's office investigated the origin of the list, but decided no crime had been committed.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Willsy admitted he wasn't certain the suspensions would stand if they were challenged in court, but he added that he felt compelled to punish the students 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 quickly teach an appropriate lesson," the principal said.

No parents exercised their two-day right of appeal of disciplinary decisions in the district, Mr. Willsy said.

"The advantage that we have is the parents of these kids were as shocked and dismayed as everyone else," he said.

No Single Answer

School officials are "very uneven" in their responses to students' Internet misbehavior because they fear what they don't understand, said Don Tapscott, the author of a new book, Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation.

"Fear gets in the way of smart decisions," Mr. Tapscott said. "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 within schools, to strengthen the responsibility of youngsters, to engage in important discussions about values."

In Boulder Valley, Colo., school officials are trying to remove that fear by providing administrators with specific training for handling misbehavior involving the Internet, said Libby Black, the Internet specialist in the district's division of learning services.

In a workshop, 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 all based on real incidents in the 25,400-student district, Ms. Black said.

"There is not a single right answer" in how to react to the problems, she said, but the workshop helps principals to see similarities between Internet misdeeds and more familiar types of misbehavior. Downloading passwords is like stealing, for example, and should be handled similarly, she said.

"There is no reason to have new rules," Ms. Black said. "It's less intimidating for administrators when you talk about it in that way."

Howard L. Pitler, the principal of L'Ouverture Computer Technology Magnet School in Wichita, Kan., agreed.

Students at the K-5 school, which enrolls 380 pupils, must adhere to the following basics on-line: "Respect yourself, respect others, be where you're supposed to be when you're supposed to be, and do not do anything that will keep others from learning--it's the same attitude that applies to cyberspace," Mr. Pitler said.

Involving Parents

Some educators emphasize that parents play an important part in teaching students to use the Internet appropriately.

"It's not something that's solely the responsibility of the school system," said Joseph S. Villani, an associate executive director of the National School Boards Association and a former technology coordinator for the Montgomery County, Md., schools. "Schools and parents need to work together to take an active role in reconstructing the kids' view about what [the Internet] is for."

The Baltimore County schools will take that approach this summer by offering Internet classes to parents on safety and supervision, the capabilities of "filtering" software that blocks access to inappropriate material, and the network's many positive uses, said Ms. Curtis, the district's coordinator for library-information services.

A three-day conference for parents in July will offer 25 workshops on the Internet. And during the 1998-99 school year, schools throughout the district will offer parents a series of six training sessions.

"We need to make them aware that being a good parent is also being informed about this new type of technology," Ms. Curtis said.

Vol. 17, Issue 35, Page 1

Published in Print: May 13, 1998, as Administrators Confounded by Internet Pranks
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