As more students, parents, teachers, and others get plugged into the web, the number of school districts with web sites has continued to grow exponentially. Many districts have distinct home pages for each school, and some even set aside space for individual teachers who want to build a particular class or subject matter page. The tools needed to construct vibrant and content-rich internet pages are widely available and easy to use, even without extensive computer programming knowledge. If you can type it or scan it, you can publish it for the entire world to see. Therein, as Shakespeare said, lies the rub. When I asked for eMail from readers a few months ago (an invitation that remains open, of course), one of the most interesting came from Walter Spiehs, a technology facilitator for the Burlington Township Schools in New Jersey. Walter posed some thoughtful questions about school district web sites, and his concerns are well worth serious consideration. He wrote, “I am concerned about posting photos or art work on our web site that a student has created. It is certainly a motivation for students to see scanned artistic creations or photo displayed on the web.”

Agreed. Student artwork and photos of classroom and extracurricular activities provide recognition and can enhance the visual impact of the page. When was the last time you saw a school newspaper with color photos? So, what’s the downside?

Walter asked, “Is it necessary to have the parents’ permission before posting photos of students? What if they are part of a group photo? Do we need to edit?” Schools historically did not seek parental consent before including student photos in school newspapers or yearbooks. No school I know of worries that parents will object if their children’s masterpieces adorn the bulletin boards in classrooms or hallways. What’s the difference with web sites?

Unfortunately, the same technology that allows parents to monitor homework assignments and enjoy pictures of the science lab makes your school web site convenient to every child molester, pedophile, and weirdo in the entire world who has nothing better to do than plug in their search engine and wander through thousands of school web sites looking for personal information on potential victims.

How much consent is required depends on how much control you have over access to your web site. For some reason, most school districts don’t seem to want to limit visitors to their sites by requiring passwords or restricting personal data to intranets that are not accessible from the web at large.

In that case, some simple rules can avoid most problems. Never publish names with photos of students! Avoid putting information on a web site that provides personal identification or links students to photos. While it might sound a bit extreme, a good rule of thumb might be to think about whether you would post the picture or information on the wall of a restroom in a sleazy bar in Bangkok. Having second thoughts about all that great publicity? As for motivation… I think posting the pictures on a bulletin board for other students to see or in a school newspaper or literary magazine or in a special display at a local mall is far more effective, motivating, and a lot less risky.

If a parent objects to having pictures of his child displayed on your school district web site, there is little justification for publishing it. Some school boards and even some web administrators feel that it is sufficient to adopt a policy that requires parents to object to web postings of student information or pictures. This is certainly a lot easier than having students bring in permission slips, but it is no different than announcing that students will be taken on a field trip unless Mom or Dad write a letter to the principal explaining their objections.

A better alternative is to include all permissions (or a checklist of choices for specific permissions) in an annual “acceptable use” policy and Internet Access Notice to parents. The parents get a comprehensive explanation of school district policy and are asked to return a consent form indicating affirmatively which activities are approved for their son or daughter.

More on this topic follows next month, when I will take a closer look at acceptable use policies and parental consents. Here’s a preview: Most acceptable use policies are ridiculously vague as far as giving parents actual notice of potential problems with internet use by schools. Common sense should be the guide, but remember that the final arbiter of privacy issues affecting minors is their parents—not school authorities.