In what might be a first in the nation, the school board in St. Lucie County, Fla., has tentatively agreed to a collective bargaining demand that will protect teachers from liability should students access inappropriate material on the internet. The agreement was set to take effect in August.

The issue arose after police charged two St. Lucie teachers in separate incidents involving computers and pornography. It was students acting without permission, not they, who had used the computers to access pornography, both teachers said. Charges ultimately were dropped in both cases.

In the wake of these incidents, the St. Lucie County Classroom Teachers Association successfully negotiated a clause that would protect teachers from liability for “unauthorized use” of school computers by their students, as long as teachers follow proper school board policy in preventing such use.

“I think the union was looking for assurance that [teachers wouldn’t] be held responsible for a person other than themselves accessing inappropriate material without their knowledge,” said Sue Renew, director of personnel for the St. Lucie County school system. “That said, teachers are responsible for providing appropriate supervision.”

The St. Lucie case marks a growing trend in school systems across the country, according to the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers’ union. As more schools connect their classrooms to the internet—raising a host of legal issues in the process—teacher unions are heading for the bargaining table with the issue of liability for student internet safety.

“I do know that other associations have included in their contract bargaining language for the use of the internet,” said Barbara Stein, senior policy analyst for the NEA’s Center for Teaching and Learning. “With students having so much access to the internet, we do not want teachers blamed for student misuse, as long as there is not a flagrant lack of student supervision.

“You can’t leave a group of fifth graders alone with a computer for four hours,” she continued. “But even with filtering software, it is just not possible to make sure students can’t ever see something inappropriate.”

The highly publicized events in St. Lucie involved allegations that county teachers allowed students to view pornographic web sites in class.

In December, eighth-grade science teacher Edra Tullis was arrested and suspended without pay after evidence of visits to more than 600 pornographic sites was found on his computer at Lincoln Park Academy. Tullis was charged with displaying obscenity to a minor, a felony offense.

The charges were dropped in April. Throughout the ordeal, Tullis maintained that he rarely used his computer. He said he suspected students may have viewed the questionable sites without his knowledge. Tullis has since resigned, claiming in a news conference that he was “unfairly treated from the start.”

The other incident occurred at St. Lucie’s Westwood High School in April, when a student was able to pull up pornography on teacher Charles Johnson’s computer. Charges were dropped against Johnson when other students testified they had seen a 15-year-old boy access the pornography when Johnson stepped out of the classroom.

Clara Cook, president of the St. Lucie County Classroom Teachers Association, told the Port St. Lucie News, “There are some very serious consequences for teachers when this kind of thing is found on their computers—and there should be—but we don’t have enough security and safeguards in place to know who went to a site.”

Following these incidents, a 14-member task force was created to address proper internet use and safety in the county’s schools.

Meanwhile, the St. Lucie school board and teachers’ union have concluded contract negotiations and will vote to ratify the contract sometime in August.

According to Renew, the language regarding the county’s new internet policy, pending ratification, reads: “A teacher shall not be liable for unauthorized use of a computer by another person unless it can be proven that a teacher did not follow school board procedures in preventing unauthorized use. All teachers are required to follow school board policy, including St. Lucie County school board’s acceptable use policy, [which] will be provided to each teacher at the start of the school year.”

Procedures to prevent unauthorized use of computers include always logging off a computer before leaving a classroom and making sure doors are locked so students can’t access computers when a teacher isn’t in the room, Renew said.

Renew said deliberations regarding internet policy were inevitable, regardless of the recent and highly publicized security breaches: “Teachers were calling for this. The proposal was put on the table by the union and the school board didn’t have a problem with it, because when an investigation is conducted, we don’t want to discipline someone for something someone else did.

“It’s not fear that motivated this, but certainly teachers are concerned about the security of the technology that’s in place,” she continued. “We take strong disciplinary action against those found viewing inappropriate material and, of course, people worry about someone else logging on to their computer.”

School officials in St. Lucie County say the district uses the CyberPatrol filter on their network, but officials admit that filters are not foolproof.

School law expert David Splitt agreed, saying, “There is just no software that can protect against this sort of thing. Kids are just too smart.”


National Education Association

Port St. Lucie News