Schools on the Web Face a Tangle
Of Legal Issues
School Web sites are packed with important information, from school board agendas to lunch menus to updates on inclement weather. And just like many commercial Internet companies, school districts have been jazzing up their Web pages with graphics, audio, and video.
But how accessible are those sites to Web surfers with disabilities?
According to R. Craig Wood, a Charlottesville, Va., lawyer and education law practitioner, school districts not only have pragmatic reasons to make their Web sites accessible to people with disabilities, they also have legal obligations to do so.
That issue was one of several addressed at a Feb. 16-17 conference on legal issues in education technology, held here by the National School Boards Association.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 has been interpreted by the federal departments of Justice and Education to require school districts and other governmental entities that have Web sites to offer “effective” and “accessible” versions to the disabled, Mr. Wood said.
“This is existing law,” Mr. Woods said. “My sense is it is very rarely complied with.”
World Wide Web sites can help liberate people with impaired hearing, vision, and mobility, Mr. Woods said, adding that schools should be on the cutting edge of accessibility to technology.
“We have the ability to take the leadership in this area,” he said.
What should districts do? The biggest area for concern is making Web sites more accessible to the visually impaired.
With the help of devices known as text readers, such people can experience much of what is on the Web. But charts and graphics that don’t come with text explanations that can be read by a text reader are a barrier, said Mr. Woods, who often represents school districts. He added that audio content should come with text options for the hearing-impaired.
Districts should start by making their home pages and other high-traffic Web areas as accessible as possible, the lawyer continued, recommending that important information, such as school- closing status during a snowstorm, should be easily accessible from the home page, not buried deep within the site.
As district Web sites become more sophisticated, it may take more effort to make them accessible.
One participant here told Mr. Wood that his district was videostreaming school board meetings on its Web site. Should the district be providing closed captioning for the hearing-impaired? Probably so, Mr. Woods said.
Another issue that’s loaded with legal and safety concerns is whether and how to publish student work online.
Many schools post student poems or artwork, usually accompanied only by a first name. But Edwin Darden, a senior staff lawyer with the NSBA, demonstrated here how easy it is on some school sites to come up with identifying information for individual pupils.
“You can cobble information from different parts of the site,” Mr. Darden said. One student poem provided a girl’s first name, her age, and her teacher’s name. Some schools post snapshots of students.
One district posted only the first names of students attached to some of their works, but a look at some of the computer code underlying the Web site revealed the pupils’ full names.
“There may be good reasons why you want to publish student works,” such as making them available to grandparents, Mr. Darden said. “But if I’m an evildoer, this is good stuff for me.”
More districts are turning to Web companies known as application-service providers, or ASPs, to handle student data such as grades, homework assignments, and other information.
The advantage to schools is that they no longer have to buy costly software programs for maintaining such data in-house. But the fact that outside vendors are maintaining sensitive information on the Web raises important legal concerns, said Michael J. McGuire, a St. Paul, Minn., lawyer who has represented school districts.
One concern is the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, the federal law that protects the privacy of student records. Since ASPs maintain individual student records, districts must be certain they will be kept confidential, Mr. McGuire said.
Districts need to look at proposed ASP contracts with several questions in mind, he added.
“Can the ASP recognize that one type of information may be classified differently for different students, depending on a parent’s choice?” he said.
Also, FERPA includes an exception for what the law describes as teacher’s desk notes, which are private notes about a student that don’t have to be turned over to parents who request their children’s educational records under the law.
“What if you are pushing teachers to go electronic?” Mr. McGuire said. Districts should check whether the ASP can create an electronic version of desk notes that is accessible only to the teacher.
Administrators should also ask whether the ASP’s system allows teachers to get access to data only about their own pupils, and whether substitute teachers should be provided limited access for the time they are covering a teacher’s class, Mr. McGuire said.
And given that some dot-com companies are barely surviving in business, districts should seek guarantees that they will have access to their data, regardless of business disputes with the ASP or if it goes belly up, Mr. McGuire said.
A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Reporter’s Notebook