In a case with broad implications for school districts nationwide, a Superior Court judge in New Hampshire is considering whether parents of children at Exeter Regional Cooperative School District have the right to see a record of the web sites students are visiting on school computers.
Exeter parent Jim Knight told Judge Gillian Abramson in arguments in late September that he and other citizens should be allowed to know which sites Exeter students are visiting.
“Mr. Knight requested a copy of the web site addresses that had been viewed because he wanted to know how effective [the district’s acceptable-use] policy actually was in protecting children” from accessing inappropriate sites, said Knight’s lawyer, Alec McEachern.
According to his lawyer, Knight’s motivation ultimately was to promote the use of filtering software, which up to now the district has refused to install.
The school system argued that opening the records would violate the state’s Electronic Communications Act of 1986 and, ultimately, individual privacy.
District officials were hesitant to comment on a case that still is awaiting a decision in court, but Steve Kossakoski, assistant superintendent for technology, said, “I think … the issue we’re dealing with is clarification. We need to clarify what our rights and responsibilities are in regards to releasing this type of information.
“As administrators, we naturally want to ensure that people in the district have all the information they need and have a right to have, but we also do not want to release sensitive and private information illegally,” he added.
Knight has taken his four children out of the school district. He said he is concerned about the content of web sites “in the aftermath of Columbine.”
“Getting to the heart of the matter,” said McEachern, “a [web site] address is not confidential under state and federal law.”
Having access to a web site address is no different than having access to a postal address, McEachern said. Furthermore, he said, school computer users do not expect privacy.
“The school fully admits it monitors computer usage,” he said.
According to McEachern, the state passed a law in 1998 requiring districts to maintain a policy regarding the use of computer systems, networks, and the internet to protect students from illegal and inappropriate use of the internet.
“In this case, the district did adopt that policy, and kids were advised that their web use would be monitored. They must sign a copy of the policy before they are given access to the internet,” McEachern said.
But Steven Hermans, the school district’s lawyer, argued that releasing computer logs–even just the web site addresses–would compromise people’s privacy.
“It’s a record of individual staff and student activity, not district activity,” Hermans said. Therefore, the logs are not subject to public information status, he said.
Knight’s lawyer acknowledged that there are, indeed, some limitations regarding the kind of information that can be received from a school district–but Knight’s request should not be affected by those restrictions.
In witness testimony before the court, network engineer John Hynes reportedly said the information Knight has requested is maintained on the proxy server’s log file, and identifying information specific to an individual–such as user names, passwords, and times of use–can be filtered out.
According to the case docket, Hynes testified that it would “take minutes to format a simple program, or ‘filter,’ which could be used to compile a list of just the URLs [Uniform Resource Locators, or web site addresses] from the proxy server log file, and that this process would not alter or endanger the integrity of the proxy server log files.”
“The issue here is whether or not the person who wants the information would be willing to pay to have a program written that would filter personal information out of the record,” said McEachern. “Mr. Knight said he was willing to pay for such a program if he could receive a listing of all the URLs.”
The case marks the first time a request for student URLs has been argued in court, according to Kossakoski.
“I have contacted a lot of people about this–and I know our lawyer has, too–and this case does seem to be precedent-setting,” he said.
Kossakoski would not comment on whether the district would consider installing filtering software as a result of the lawsuit.
No further arguments are expected unless one party decides to appeal the decision, and McEachern estimated that a decision would be handed down sometime in November. Judge Abramson did not indicate when she would announce her decision.
Exeter Regional Cooperative School District