An investigation of computer records from 49 Indiana school districts by the Indianapolis Star has raised questions about what constitutes appropriate use of computers by administrators.

In a Feb. 18 story, the Star reported that superintendents who are in charge of enforcing their districts’ web-surfing policies often violate their own rules. While many school internet policies say web surfing should be for educational use only, some Indiana superintendents are shopping for cars, planning trips, and looking for other jobs on their district-issued computers, the Star reported.

In fact, one superintendent’s internet records reportedly included two sites with pornographic material—an apparent violation of common school district internet policies, and one that cost former Hamilton Southeastern Superintendent Robert Herrold his job in September. It was Herrold’s example that prompted the Star’s investigation.

The Star’s review of 6,691 web sites on superintendents’ computers showed that half of the sites clearly were education pages. But 3,000 other sites—some of which also could have been viewed for educational purposes—ranged from the popular Amazon.com shopping site to more obscure sites.

Those included www.tomthedancingbug.com, the home page for a comic strip that was found on the computer records of Shelbyville Superintendent James Peck, and www.near-death.com, a web site about near-death experiences, found in the personal computer bookmarks of Marion Chapman, who resigned in January as superintendent of South Madison Schools.

Zionsville Superintendent Howard Hull’s internet records reportedly included two sites with pornographic material. Hull said he was stunned to learn that the sites showed up on the files from his district-issued laptop computer. He said he tracked down the likeliest culprit in a quick eMail check with his college-age daughter. She told him she probably went to the sites, not knowing they contained inappropriate material.

“I think I’ll keep a padlock on it from now on,” Hull said of his laptop.

Hull also said the Star failed to mention that the internet policy forbidding any personal use of school computers in his district was a student policy. “It does not apply to the adults in our district,” he said.

While school districts across the country have enacted rules to police students’ internet access and have punished them for violations, many districts do not have well-defined guidelines for staff members that address personal use. Even in districts that allow personal use of computers, ethical questions remain, such as whether superintendents should look for new jobs on their school computers.

That is what Ron Mayes, the former superintendent of Edinburgh, Ind., schools did before moving to a new job as chief of the larger Taylor Community Schools near Kokomo in December.

He said he probably spent some time at work in Edinburgh on his job search—and he believes that was acceptable. He would allow his own employees to do the same, simply because he wants his teachers to use the internet as much as possible.

School board members did not mind, either.

“If he used a lot of work time to search for a job, then that would bother me,” said Cathy Hamm, an Edinburgh school board member. Because Edinburgh’s policy allows personal use of the internet, she believes in the honor system.

Judy Seltz, director of planning and communication for the American Association of School Administrators, said the same prohibitions that are placed on student surfing should not always apply to professional staff.

“We’re talking about people who work far more than a regular nine-to-five work day, and it seems reasonable that if a superintendent is at the district office on a Saturday morning, [he or she] should be able to take a break and look at the New York Times online,” Seltz said. “On the other hand, I think it’s important that superintendents understand that if they’re using school property, they should behave reasonably and responsibly.”

A good acceptable use policy is key, Seltz said: “The best acceptable use policies are not necessarily so very detailed, but they allow for flexibility. And there should be a differentiation between adults and children.”

She noted that in some cases, administrators may visit inappropriate sites to determine if that material should be blocked. “That kind of going to sites is within the job responsibilities,” she said. “In the acceptable use policy, there should be a clause that says whatever you need to be able to do your job well must be allowed.”

John Vaille, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, warned that a district’s policy must be clear on what types of uses are allowed for both staff and students. “If an acceptable use policy is expected to apply to the staff and students in a school district, than all staff are equally responsible, including the superintendent,” he said.

Superintendents who break the rules will have trouble disciplining staff for violating the same policy, said Richard McGowan, who teaches business ethics at Butler University.

“Real leaders have to follow the rules, even if it’s inconvenient,” McGowan said. “How can they expect others to if they don’t?”

Links:

Indianapolis Star
http://www.starnews.com

Zionsville Community Schools
http://www.zcs.k12.in.us

Edinburgh Community Schools
http://edinburgh.k12.in.us/ecsc.htm

American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org