Even if you aren’t old enough to remember Wally Cox as “Mr. Peepers” on the small black-and-white tube, or you somehow missed the antics of John Travolta as Vinny Barbarino on “Welcome Back, Kotter,” you are likely to have gotten a few laughs or tears from TV sitcoms or dramas set in the classroom.
While many of the scenarios are based on real situations, in many cases TV writers either have no clue as to what really happens in school, or they intentionally distort or exaggerate reality for effect. A recent example of the sublime approach to prime-time classroom soap opera is the Fox Network show “Boston Public.” Putting aside the sheer goofiness of the over-the-top caricatures of faculty, staff, and students, there is one aspect of the show that reflects one of the more serious and frustrating issues facing eSchoolersstudent web pages.
Among the ongoing flow of interesting and though-provoking eMails from readers who are out on the eSchool front lines, I received this question from Paul F. Rosenbaum, head of Upper School and associate headmaster of the Viewpoint School in Calabasas, Calif. He wrote that one of the dilemmas he faces concerns student web pages. “Of course, our student newspaper is reviewed by the faculty editor, and the school web page is reviewed by the faculty webmaster. But what about student web pages that mention the school?”
Although it is unlikely that many students will post content on their web pages that is as offensive and shocking as the animated horrors published by the unbridled young webmistress on “Boston Public,” it is always tempting for students to use their personal web space to poke fun at administrators, criticize teachers, or sensationalize school-related problems.
For those schools that allow students to create a personal web space on the school’s web site, there is little problem. The pages can be monitored and edited (OK, censored) by school officials or teachers. Certainly, the parameters of proper web page content are part of your school’s acceptable-use policy (AUP). But when kids use their home computers and internet service providers (most of which offer some web space as part of the web connection fee) to rattle your school’s cage, taking disciplinary action can get a bit tricky.
Suspensions and expulsions are drastic measures that can buy you a one-way ticket to court and a sizeable legal bill for defending against the almost certain First Amendment challenge. Far more effective (and a whole lot cheaper) is immediate and non-confrontational contact with the parents, most of whom do not monitor their cherubs’ web shenanigans. If that does not work, communicate with the ISP (internet service provider) that hosts the student’s web page. All ISPs have their own AUPs, and most do not condone obscenities or libelous material.
You might want to add some wording to the part of your school’s AUP that applies the same standards of web-behavior to a student’s personal web pages. The student and the student’s parents who sign the AUP agreement for using the school’s web facilities then would be asked to agree that they will adhere to the same standards of appropriate content for personal web pages or postings that can be accessed from the school’s computers. While the First Amendment may restrict your ability to control private web site content, if the student and parent agree to the restrictions in the AUP “contract,” it may be easier to defend withdrawing school web privileges for student misuse of personal web pages.
Make sure you don’t try to over-control private student web pages. If you get too sensitive about satire or criticism on student web sites, you are less likely to prevail with either parents or ISPs. Sometimes, you are better off just to grin and bear itand be thankful it wasn’t anonymously spray-painted in foot-high letters on the school driveway.