Infrastructure

Pa. Texting Scandal Highlights Complexities for IT Leaders

By Benjamin Herold — October 15, 2013 6 min read
Abdallah Hawa, left, technology director for the Coatesville, Pa., district, greets parents and teachers during a school board meeting last month. The board allowed two top administrators to resign despite calls to terminate them following allegations that they exchanged racist text messages on district-owned cellphones.

The recent furor caused by the discovery of racist text messages involving a Pennsylvania superintendent has cast new light on the growing professional, ethical, and legal challenges faced by many district information technology departments now awash in digital devices.

Abdallah Hawa, the information technology director for the 7,200-student Coatesville Area system, near Philadelphia, was erasing the memory of the district-owned cellphone of Coatesville Area High School’s athletic director in August when he uncovered a lengthy text-message exchange between the sports official and the superintendent in which racist slurs were directed at district students and staff members.

Mr. Hawa reported his discovery, prompting the resignations of both Superintendent Richard Como and Athletic Director Jim Donato, the revelation of an already-underway criminal investigation into the district, and allegations from Mr. Hawa’s lawyer that the IT chief was pressured to compromise the security of the district’s computer network and has been harassed as a whistleblower.

Keith R. Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, described the still-unfolding scandal as a cautionary tale.

The popular practice of issuing mobile devices to district employees, Mr. Krueger said, has resulted in a growing need for professional development on acceptable technology use, continued examples of school officials who behave illegally or inappropriately in the digital arena, and an easily accessible data trail that has placed greater responsibilities on IT staff members, who must balance their other professional obligations with new legal requirements to preserve data and records.

“The best way for districts to handle [the new challenges] is good education and policies ahead of time,” Mr. Krueger said. “Those are easier to deal with than a situation that explodes on the front page of the newspaper.”

Inappropriate Behavior

Other examples of inappropriate behavior using district-owned digital technology, said Mr. Krueger, have included unauthorized long-distance calls, “sexting” among staff, and predatory behaviors directed from adults to minors. In March, for example, a New York City special education teacher was fired after he was discovered using a district-owned email account to arrange sexual encounters via the website Craigslist.

Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the American Association of School Administrators, said that many district chiefs now carry two smartphones in order to split their professional and personal communications.

Kendra Miller holds up a sign addressing the texting controversy before the board meeting.

“If you don’t want public eyes on it, then don’t use a publicly owned device,” he said.

For the vast majority of conscientious superintendents, Mr. Domenech said, that approach is a common-sense way to keep district business separate from messages with a spouse, for example.

But Mr. Como, the 67-year-old educator who led the Coatesville Area School District from 2005 until his resignation Aug. 29, used a district-owned device for his inflammatory conversation with Mr. Donato.

Portions of the pair’s electronic exchange were published by the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa., last month. Dozens of times, the men used a racial epithet in reference to Coatesville students and staff members who are African-American.

In one exchange, the IT director, Mr. Hawa, who is Lebanese-American, was the object of multiple derogatory slurs used against people of Middle Eastern descent.

Samuel C. Stretton, the lawyer for Mr. Hawa, said his client was “sickened” to read the messages and reported them to the district’s deputy superintendent, Teresa Powell. Ms. Powell has since alleged that she has been harassed since helping make the messages public and is also a client of Mr. Stretton’s.

“I don’t know if there’s a clear policy, but [Mr. Hawa] did the right thing, the only thing he could have done under those circumstances,” Mr. Stretton said.

Mr. Domenech of the Arlington, Va.-based aasa described as “inconceivable” both the content of Mr. Como and Mr. Donato’s exchange and their decision to carry it out on district-owned devices.

“It’s just like kids going on social media, posting all kinds of things, and thinking the world isn’t going to see it,” he said.

Security Questions

Under the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act, said Mr. Krueger of CoSN, districts that accept federal E-rate funding are expected to try to prevent such behaviors on the front end.

“Every school district in the country should be providing professional development to faculty about the appropriate use of their devices, network, and email,” he said.

As the racist text messages in Coatesville were being made public, the Chester County, Pa., district attorney’s office confirmed that it was already in the midst of investigating possible wrongdoing in the district. The text messages that were made public also contain apparent allusions to skimming money out of the school system.

In late September, Mr. Stretton, the lawyer for Mr. Hawa, alleged in two email messages to the Coatesville Area school board that his client had been denied access to the district’s computer system, that “a private computer company has taken over the entire technology department,” and that Mr. Hawa had been inappropriately ordered to hand over passwords to the district’s computing network to the district’s new acting superintendent. Together, Mr. Stretton argued, the actions served to effectively strip Mr. Hawa of his authority and to compromise the security of the district’s digital records.

“These are the people who are trying to cover things up and make it difficult to prove certain things,” Mr. Stretton said in an interview. “God knows what they’ve done.”

In a statement, J. Neil Campbell, the president of the school board, denied the allegations.

“The [Coatesville school] board engaged the services of a well-respected data-security firm to ensure that all records have been maintained. The goal was to ensure that no files had been or would be altered or deleted,” Mr. Campbell wrote.

Thomas P. Hogan, the Chester County district attorney, said that a school district facing criminal inquiries should first have its lawyers and IT department map out a strategy for safeguarding evidence and backing up files with minimal disruption to the district’s operations, then should communicate its plan to the prosecutor to avoid any perception of interference.

That can put employees like Mr. Hawa in a dicey position, Mr. Hogan acknowledged.

“The IT director really at that point has a double set of duties,” he said. “They have to preserve any data that might be related to the investigation from the standpoint of the government. They also have a duty to follow any lawful orders of the [district] regarding that data.”

Since the resignations of Mr. Como and Mr. Donato, the Coatesville district has engaged the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and the local NAACP “to help our community heal,” according to the statement issued by the board president.

Mr. Stretton is still threatening to pursue charges that Mr. Hawa and Ms. Powell were harassed as whistleblowers and to call for the removal of the Coatesville district’s acting superintendent and solicitor.

Mr. Krueger of CoSN cautioned that the problems in Coatesville are a reminder of human, not technological, shortcomings, and that the situation actually highlights how digital data can help detect and punish inappropriate or illegal behavior.

“How would you handle hate speech if it was written, or if it was said in a staff meeting?” Mr. Krueger said. “This instance should be handled in the same way, except you’re not in ‘he said-she said’ mode. There’s actually a record.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 2013 edition of Education Week as Pa. Texting Furor Shows Difficulties Facing IT Leaders

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