Maybe it was the excitement of the end of a century, but folks seemed eager to rush the end of 2000. Shopping malls and even municipal light poles were blurring the seasons more than usual. Early last fall, I saw a store display with Santa surrounded by glowing Jack-o-Lanterns.

I know there is no hard and fast rule (and certainly no law) governing when it is appropriate to put up decorations for each season, but how much further can we stretch it? If the current trend continues, I expect some year soon that we will be bobbing for Easter eggs in the fall and grilling stuffed turkey on the Fourth of July. There oughta be a law!

Or are there already too many laws? Even though Congress probably would never enact a law forbidding the appearance of Santa Claus before the first frost, legislatures are not above trying to regulate just about every other aspect of our lives. As we inaugurate a new president and the next Congress takes its seats, the legislative hopper is guaranteed to be filled with proposed bills to encourage, curtail, and otherwise regulate the use of technology in the workplace.

Whether it’s the season to be jolly or folks are dancing around the Maypole (do they still do that?), the use of computers and other electronic devices in the schoolhouse is a major source of controversy. But, like so many other aspects of our new high-tech century (to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Cassius), “the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our laws, but in ourselves.”

If your school district has tried to develop a policy to manage the use of computers and the internet, one of the toughest issues you faced is how much regulation is needed, especially when it comes to the use of school facilities by employees. Perhaps the first and most important advice this columnist can offer from a legal perspective is that this is not a new problem. It has been with us from the first day a telephone was installed and a teacher used it to call home to check on a sick child. Some schools ignored these “family emergencies,” while others put in pay phones. It got more serious when photocopiers were introduced, and making copies of tax returns and other personal documents became another “silent perk.”

There are really four ways to approach regulating personal use of school-owned electronics. The first is a blanket zero-tolerance policy of “no personal use.” This means no eMail from the spouse or kids and no use of the T-1 bandwidth internet connection to download games or recipes. The opposite end of the spectrum is no policy at all. Both of these approaches have the advantage of unambiguous guidance. The light is either red or green.

But, picture the busy intersection where traffic lights use these options, and the wisdom of having some additional guidance is apparent. The “no personal use” is easy to explain but requires monitoring and enforcement procedures that can strain your budget and employee relations. On the other hand, the “no policy” policy is tough, even among professionals. Deciding each situation on a case-by-case basis with no policy guidance can lead to everything from accusations of favoritism to lawsuits.

The “yellow light” options are both “reasonable use” policies. The first is a policy that seems inviting but actually may be the worst option. The idea is simple: Adopt a “no use” policy, but tolerate reasonable violations. The gray area here is too much for either managers or staff to handle. The only real guidance comes from the employee who goes too far on the wrong day and gets selected to be an “example.” How many of us really want anecdotal guidelines based on random discipline? Well, maybe the lawyers who earn big fees on cases like this…

The best option may be a different compromise. This policy allows reasonable personal use of school-based computers (eMail, internet, scanners, printers, and other tools), but makes it clear that “unreasonable” use will not be tolerated. This is often less difficult to enforce, because it is easier to get employees to agree about limits if they feel they are being treated like adults or professionals. Monitoring can be periodic (such as checking internet usage logs once a month, rather than daily) and can be more directly related to performance of other duties without raising the specter of discrimination. In other words, poor performance invites scrutiny in many areas, including how much non-work activity is taking place on the job.

Striking a balance between reliance on personal ethics and reliance on strict guidelines will be a lot easier if you involve all the players in defining the boundaries. In addition, because the most important implementation tool is a clear understanding of the guidelines, be sure that written guidelines avoid legalese and undefined technical terms. Finally, don’t define the technology too narrowly … you never know what gadgets will turn up next year to test the limits of both your rules and personal ethics.