Pending an appeal of the punishment, a failing grade given to an Alaska honors student because he accessed a pornographic web site on a school computer cannot be placed on his academic record, Superior Court Judge John Reese said Jan. 26.

The case–which is believed to be the first of its kind–could go a long way toward determining what is, and is not, considered an appropriate punishment for inappropriate use of computers in the classroom.

Judge Reese issued a stay against the Anchorage School District and told both sides to submit written arguments. Reese said he will decide the case as soon as possible.

But he also told the district that he expects that Thomas Obermeyer Jr., the top-ranked student in East High’s senior class, will win the appeal.

The sanction with a failing grade “does not appear to bear a rational connection to the offense,” Reese said.

Obermeyer has a 4.098 grade point average without the F assigned in a computer workshop after he and two other students were caught calling up pornographic web sites when they were supposed to be doing computer maintenance.

As punishment, the students were removed from the course and given a W/F, which usually means a student was withdrawn from a class “while he or she was failing,” Reese said.

“Grades measure a student’s performance in his or her academic work,” the judge said. “An F grade means the student has made ‘insufficient progress in the subject to merit granting of credit in the course,'” he said, citing the student handbook.

But Obermeyer was not failing the course, he said.

“The rational connection seems fatally elusive to this court,” Reese said.

Jim Taylor, secondary supervisor for the Anchorage School District, said the failing grade was “a matter of consequence.”

“[The punishment] falls within the range that we do for these sorts of offenses,” he said. “It’s a violation of class rule. If you are going to be in this class, you have to follow this rule.”

Each student is required to sign an internet and eMail agreement form before they are permitted to use school equipment. A parent and a teacher also sign it.

The agreement states, “The following are not permitted: sending or displaying offensive messages or pictures… Violations may result in a loss of access as well as other disciplinary or legal action.”

Norm Holthouse, the district’s executive director of technology, said the punishment warning on the form is stated in a flexible way. It is the district’s policy to let each school determine an appropriate punishment.

Every circumstance is different, he said: “It’s always a case of what the [student’s] intent was.”

The penalty at Obermeyer’s school for inappropriate internet use is a loss of computer privileges for a period of 90 days.

Taylor said the F was assigned because a student who is denied access to required classroom materials for such a long period of time could not possibly meet the course requirements and therefore could not pass the class.

He also said challenging a grade through the courts undermines a teacher’s job of evaluating students.

“Folks are kind of nervous about the access to things on the internet–building bombs, making drugs,” he said. Taylor believes students need to learn how to make good judgments and follow rules.

“It’s not a question of morality. It’s one of using school equipment to access this stuff.”

Yet Obermeyer’s attorney, Rex Butler, said the F is overkill and would ruin Obermeyer’s hard-won chance to be valedictorian at graduation this spring.

Reese had initially urged both sides to mediate the problem, but the district chose not to.

Obermeyer is the son of former Anchorage school board member Theresa Obermeyer, who ran for Senate and served a federal jail term in 1996 for disorderly conduct at the Anchorage federal courthouse.

Butler maintains that the punishment does not fit the crime.

“The school district was acting irrationally because they had a problem with the student’s mother,” he said. “They would rather do anything than have an Obermeyer sit at the top of the class.”

Links:

Anchorage School District
http://www.asd.k12.ak.us/