The Evolution of 'Nerd Discipline'

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As with most schools, our overall experience with computer technology, classroom applications, networks, and controlled Internet access has been positive and productive. There is, however, a small, smart, and venturesome segment of our student population whose actions sometimes make it otherwise.

These are individuals who use school computers--occasionally in conjunction with computers at home--to test every rule, procedure, and established guideline ... and thus challenge us to devise new and different ways of dealing fairly and effectively with a whole new category of "electronic" infractions. The infractions can range in severity from downloading objectionable material to exchanging passwords, and from intentionally deleting student files to planting software devices designed to disable one or more targeted workstations, a whole department, or the school's entire network.

For the most part, students who misuse our systems are bright, creative, and computer-literate--more so than many of our administrators. Usually, they've never before been referred to an administrator for negative behavior and are, therefore, relatively new to any sort of disciplinary procedure. At the same time, their parents are often involved with the school and care openly about their children, especially when grades, class rank, and college aspirations are concerned. More often than not, they too are not as computer-wise as their children.

But however bright and promising these young people may be, the fact remains that they are students out to beat, manipulate, or damage a network of machines--and of school and student data--that is vital, sophisticated, and very expensive to maintain.

How do we deal with them, and with the issues that their actions create? How do we measure the short- and long-term impact of this tampering as it relates to student rights (both perpetrators' and their victims') and the security of our schools? How can we also ensure that the punishment for such offenses fits the crime? Clearly, a new set of guidelines is needed--guidelines that I refer to as "nerd discipline."

The first infraction of this kind I dealt with happened last spring. It concerned a college-bound upperclassman who used his Internet privileges and our color printers to download pornographic material. Though the filtering programs designed to block such access had not yet been activated, all our students had been advised in no uncertain terms that such activity was prohibited.

Our school's routine methods of discipline (imposing in-house or out-of-school suspension) were not the best approach to dealing with these types of youngsters, the principal and I soon found. What's more, their parents, we learned, were not the sort to passively accept the prospect of their college-bound children sitting all day in a suspension room missing honors and Advanced Placement classwork. They let us know that they were not inclined to find fault in a child's (particularly their child's) simple and natural display of "experimentation." I've even been told by parents that I should be "grateful" for having their children enrolled in my school, that administrators here were more intent on rules and discipline than in taking full academic advantage of students who were clearly brighter than their peers. Such students, I was informed, were so highly skilled that we should, instead, use them as teaching "assistants." Besides, as one father told me, it's perfectly acceptable to allow his child to experiment within and beyond the imposed limits of our network. After all, we didn't want to squash his curiosity, did we?

Using our district's "Acceptable Usage Policy" as the cornerstone of rules governing computer use, I began to look for alternative disciplinary methods to help construct an appropriate set of guidelines. My goal was a consistent approach to dealing decisively with computer-related misconduct, one that would take all facets and all sides into consideration: the nature of the infraction, the student, his or her parents, community standards, the welfare of the school and its investment in technology, and the rights and security of other students.

Since there was little available literature on this topic, I relied on the instincts I've developed over the years, a little trial and error, and the support and cooperation of fellow administrators.

For the student who intentionally downloaded the pornography, for example, the consequence was termination of his use of school computers for the rest of his enrollment. In reviewing this decision, however, and after taking into consideration his parents' concern for "curiosity" and college, I decided the punishment was too severe. I amended the length of termination to one calendar year. As of this writing, the boy's privileges have been restored.

A lesser violation of usage rules involved a student who downloaded and printed 40 pages of song lyrics, an action with no relevance whatsoever to any assigned work. This student was given three days of after-school detention. Students are not allowed to print more than five pages of material without permission from a teacher. This guideline was the result of a steady increase in the amount paper and toner supplies our school used (not to mention increased costs), and was soon adopted as part of our overall district policy.

I've also assigned detention or revocation of privileges to youngsters who reveal their individual passwords or who use someone else's password--with or without permission. I view password security in much the same way I do locker combinations and the personal identification numbers we use at ATMs. Students are given passwords with the understanding that they are--except in instances of officially reported theft--solely and ultimately responsible for any computers accessed and used with that private code.

In requesting passwords, all students--and their parents--must read and sign the district's usage policy regarding security and individual responsibility before receiving a password. This policy is also stated in the student handbook and clearly displayed in every classroom where computers are used.

For students who engage in aggressive or damaging computer tampering, the penalties are more severe. On more than one occasion, I've dealt with youngsters who link pornographic and other objectionable World Wide Web sites to our school's home page, bring in "homemade" programs to disable our own installed filtering software, or install popular--and disruptive--interactive computer "point and shoot" war games. In all such instances, parents have been informed immediately, and students' penalties have ranged from two weeks' detention to termination of computer privileges for one to six months or longer.

Despite success with these policies, it became clear that we had to devise an alternative to short- and long-term termination of privileges. Too many of the students involved in such infractions are enrolled in courses requiring daily computer access, such as computer-assisted design, keyboarding, business computer applications, graphic arts, and C++ programming. To fully suspend their computer privileges could adversely impact grades, credits, and class ranking. So we introduced a controlled form of suspension, a kind of "monitored probation." Affected students' teachers are advised to closely monitor computer use to make sure that only authorized classwork is being performed. The computer is to be used only as a non-networked "stand alone," and the monitored student is not permitted to use any other computer in the building without direct supervision.

Fortunately, the majority of computer abuse occurs within the school building itself. Yet despite the efforts of our district's experienced technical specialists, two students in two separate incidents have managed to disable parts of our system from outside locations.

In the first, a student from our sister high school got into a heated, non-computer-related dispute with a student from our school. Intent on getting even with our student, the other student used his school's computers to break into our building's central file server, open our student's data folder, and delete several files.

Thanks to the quick cooperation of district technicians, we were able to trace the offending student back to our sister school. We contacted the school's principal, who managed to get a vague admission from the student that some sort of "accident" had occurred. Disciplinary action was left in the hands of that school's principal.

Back at our school, we were confronted with a serious violation of building security and a student's right to privacy. Try as we might, we were unable to retrieve the majority of our student's deleted files. But fortunately, this student was wise enough to back up most of his files on diskette (an unofficial suggestion from one of his instructors that instantly became required procedure for everyone who uses our computers). To facilitate this procedure, we permit the saving of files on the server, but also supply students with their own diskettes at the beginning of every computer-related course and continually re-emphasize the importance of using them to back up files.

The second, more serious incident involved a sophomore who used our school's computers to "experiment" with software designed to select and disable individual workstations. Using her own home computer, she accessed the school's server and planted "time bomb" software inside several individual computers. With this software, the girl was able to instruct designated computers to shut down at different times throughout the school building. For a period of two weeks, computers in offices and classrooms schoolwide would suddenly shut down. And every time a "bomb" went off, our entire system went down, too. Computer classes suddenly stopped. Final exams and other tests were erased, and our library's entire tracking system disappeared.

In dealing with this expensive, time-consuming, and damaging situation, we first had district technicians design a type of firewall (a program that, in effect, surrounds a computer system with a protective barrier against unauthorized access from the outside) to block access to our server. When the problem persisted, we monitored computer use within the building and were able to trace and identify the student, who was by now using inside workstations to continue setting these "time bombs."

Because of its severity, this incident necessitated a hearing before the superintendent, who is still reviewing the matter at this writing. There is a strong possibility that the student involved will be permanently removed from our school.

We've also tried to make use of a more subtle tactic in curbing future computer abuse by reprimanded students: reminding them of the power of the college recommendation. A less-than-enthusiastic nod from a teacher or principal--or no recommendation at all--can adversely affect a student's chance at acceptance by the college of his or her choice, not to mention the impact it has on the awarding of scholarships. This is a technique we've found to be especially effective with upperclassmen--and with their parents.

Computer abuse is a problem we all must deal with--decisively, effectively, and fairly. New rules, policies, and enforcement procedures must continually be devised to demonstrate that computer access is an aid to learning, not an individual license to damage, destroy, or disrupt the rights of others--or thwart the school in meeting its obligation to provide a modern, efficient, and secure learning environment for everyone.

Through constant monitoring and review of policies and rules, we can make every school's experience with computer technology as positive and productive as it can and should be.

Jeannine Clark is an assistant principal at Clarkstown High School North in New City, N.Y., and the school's building coordinator for the district's technology initiative.

Vol. 17, Issue 41, Pages 36, 38

Published in Print: June 24, 1998, as The Evolution of 'Nerd Discipline'
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