Be wary of grade-letter sanctions for computer mischief

Computers in schools are wonderful educational tools. But educators are quickly discovering that the new technology creates disciplinary problems as well as learning opportunities. Dealing with the mischief and misuse that accompanies computer use by students offers some interesting challenges and lessons.

A few of the problems are unique, but most are the same kinds of issues that have been faced by public schools since the first mischievous boy discovered that the end of a girl’s pigtail fit nicely into the mouth of an open inkwell. As the classroom paradigm shifts with each new technology, the lessons of the past provide guidance for handling the present.

Just as the introduction of chemistry labs required teachers to deal with the occasional unauthorized experimentation, providing students with high bandwidth access to the internet has the potential to blow up in your face. In fact, allowing students to surf the web in class is not much different from opening up the chemical storage closet and inviting them to just “see what happens when you mix a few of these.”

In the case of the internet, unfiltered and insufficiently supervised access will inevitably lead to problems. One Alaska school district wound up in court when it came down hard on a student who discovered he could use his classroom computer to look at some anatomy demonstrations that were not in the curriculum (see story, page 1).

When the Anchorage high school honors student was discovered viewing a pornographic web site, the punishment assessed was an F in the computer workshop. The school district had informed all students that misuse of the computers could lead to loss of computer privileges, but failing the course was not mentioned as a potential punishment.

The issue, of course, is whether an academic penalty is ever a legitimate sanction in this type of case. When the student’s parents took the school system to court, the judge agreed with them that lowering the student’s grade as punishment did “not appear to bear a rational connection to the offense.”

The courts have struggled with this issue over the years. It is pretty well settled that you can’t make a federal case out of grade sanctions, as long as there is some due process. In a 1998 decision by the 7th District U.S. Court of Appeals in Dunn v. Fairfield Community High School, the court said there was no substantive civil rights violation in lowering the grades of two students who played an unauthorized guitar solo at a school concert. However, state courts, like the one in Alaska, have tended to favor the student’s side of the controversy.

In cases like Katzman v. Cumberland Valley School District, judges look at the appropriateness of the punishment, especially whether the grade reduction was for behavior unrelated to actual academic achievement. In that case, an honor student who drank a glass of wine at a party was thrown off the cheerleading squad, dumped from the National Honor Society, and given a 10 percent reduction in all grades. The court disallowed the academic sanction.

The Alaska case ought to be fair warning to school districts that using grade reduction as a sanction for misuse of classroom computers may result in paying a lawyer big fees for a losing effort. But there is more to consider than just another courtroom defeat. My own classroom experience at the high school level tells me that severe sanctions are unlikely to deter students from wandering into the non-academic backrooms of the world wide web. Filtering, close supervision, in-school suspensions, and sanctions that take away computer access are far more effective.

Part of the problem also just comes with the territory. You put a 17-year old male student and all of his raging hormones in front of a computer with pictures of naked women only a few key clicks away, and what do you expect him to do (if he can)? If your computer program cannot prevent the occasional web surfing in dangerous waters, then you should not be surprised when it happens, and you should be prepared to handle it without overreacting and getting sued in the process.

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