The phenomenal growth of the internet, and the proliferation of means by which young net-surfers can access it, continue to create problems for parents and school administrators. Or do they? Is it the expanding technology that generates complaints, bitter disputes, and even lawsuitsor is it the way we are using it?
The experience of dealing with television’s influence on students should have alerted us. After all, the computer monitor is a look-alike cousin of the electronic Cyclops that brought us Saturday morning advertising blitzes disguised as cartoon shows.
The generation that has been online almost from birth is toddling into the public schools and is being supervised by adults whose computer skills and internet awareness levels are generally behind that of their students. The realities of the web have not become ingrained into the sensibilities of most teachers and other educators. It’s still a foreign world, with a different language and customs. And because the internet still lies outside the realm of our common experience and everyday sense of how the world works, we sometimes approach it with a distinct lack of common sense.
Our inability to apply common sense to the internet is partly caused by the exponential increase in accessibility created by the web’s boundless interconnectivity. It affords us almost totally unfettered convenience. With less effort than it takes to fill out a 3 x 5 card and tack it up on a school bulletin board, we can now announce next week’s menu for the school cafeteria on the school’s web site, and all the parents with access to a computer and a modem can plan accordingly. No more “take this home to your parents” flyers that languish in the bottom of the bookbag.
Of course, the problem is that many of us think about our school web sites as if they were strictly analogous to the bulletin board or notes sent home to parents. One New Jersey school district that created a network with web sites for each of its schools may be learning some of the differences the hard way.
Using the web sites as bulletin boards, school officials posted information about school trips, including dates and times. They posted names and addresses of students. Then, because they thought it would spruce up the sites if they added more visual material, they posted pictures of students.
All of it was there, very convenient for parents and teachers and other students. Unfortunately, an internet site also is very convenient to every child molester, pedophile, and creep in the entire world who has nothing better to do than browse through thousands of web sites ending in .edu or .org looking for free information on potential victims.
It may seem like good common sense that posting students’ personal information and pictures on a web site is unwise (unless access to the site is strictly controlled). But the vast difference between a school paper or bulletin board and a web site apparently just never occurred to the adults in charge of the internet project.
One student’s parents filed a notice of intent to sue the board of education for $10 million to compensate them for “extreme mental anguish” and other damages. How’s that for incentive if you haven’t taken a good look at your school system’s web site lately?
While there are few “sure things” in this world, one of them is this: If you aren’t carefully monitoring the content of your school web site, you are going to be spending a lot more time with your school lawyer.