By now, you should know that every school district allowing the use of computers and the internet by students, faculty, and staff needs an acceptable-use policy (AUP) to establish the ground rules–and, in fact, most schools already have an AUP. In most cases, the AUP must be read and signed by each user and, if the user is a minor, the student’s parent or guardian also must give permission.

While some schools have a special form, in many cases parental consent is accomplished by having the responsible adult sign (or countersign) the same AUP as the student. Either method is perfectly fine. But how can you tell whether your AUP is gonna do the job?

I have read more than a hundred AUPs, many of which arrive via eMail from a variety of sources. AUPs are the bailiwick of everyone from full-time school district IT directors to faculty members who have been dubbed “internet coordinator” on a part-time or ad hoc basis by principals who found out they knew that a WAN was more than a weak smile. Many of these AUPs are pretty good, but few are really well-written–and more than a few are really meaningless collections of vague language that mention computers and the internet.

The worst offenders fail to fulfill the three main reasons for having an AUP in the first place. The first, and core, purpose of an AUP is to establish a clear set of rules for using school computers to access the internet. This means you should make some definite choices, such as whether you will allow users to access chat rooms or subscribe to so-called “Usenet” newsgroups.

The second (and some school lawyers believe the most crucial) reason for an AUP is to provide notice. The AUP must inform users about the rules, limits, and consequences for misuse. More importantly, it must give parents sufficient information so that the permission they give for their minor children is truly “informed” consent.

Finally, the AUP must be a clearly written mechanism for users (and students’ parents) to acknowledge that they have gotten notice of the rules and agree to use–or consent to allow their children to use–the internet in the manner allowed by these rules. If your AUP does not do a good job in meeting all three fundamentals, it’s time to sharpen the pencils and rework it.

If you question whether your AUP is up to the task, ask yourself whether it really provides an unsophisticated parent who has never sat down in front of a computer and browsed the “wild, wide web” any idea of what his child may be exposed to as part of the internet educational experience.

One of the worst examples to grace my in-box recently came from a Michigan school system that shall remain nameless, but not shameless. The AUP is so vague that parents could not possibly rely on it to obtain any real idea of what they are being asked to consent to. It says, “Members having accounts on the network should be advised that they might locate material that could be considered offensive or controversial. Parents of minors should be aware of the existence of such materials and monitor home usage of the system.” Yabbadayabbada … that’s all, folks.

The AUP then asks parents to acknowledge that “as the parent or guardian of this student, I have read the Electronic Access and Use for Educational Purposes Policy. [The school district] has taken precautions to prohibit access to inappropriate materials. However, I also recognize it is impossible for [the school district] to restrict access to all inappropriate materials, and I will not hold them responsible for materials acquired on the network.”

Then, based on this underwhelming disclosure, parents are asked to sign the following release: “In consideration for the privilege of using the system … I hereby release [the school district] and its operators and sponsors and its faculty and staff and all organizations, groups and institutions with which [the school district] is affiliated for any and all claims of any nature arising from my use, my child’s use or inability to use, the network.”

Of course, this release language is pretty much legally worthless, because it is based on inadequate, vague notice. It’s sort of like asking a parent to sign a permission slip for a field trip to an undisclosed location by whatever means the school decides to transport them. In many cases, schools think they must use vague, merely suggestive language in their AUPs, because otherwise parents will withhold permission.

School officials who adopt this broad-brush approach usually agree that an AUP is an important tool. They just don’t recognize the need to face the notice issues involved in creating an AUP that is more than just words on paper. If your AUP can’t pass the vagueness test, check back in this space over the summer for a few tips on how to give it a tune-up.