After the June 2001 Ethics & Law column was published, readers’ eMail response focused on a single demand: “OK, Mr. eSchool Lawyer, you have told us that acceptable-use policies (AUPs) are unacceptable if they do not set firm rules and give clear and unambiguous notice that tells parents and students about the rules and limits and consequences for misuse of school computers and the internet. Now give us a list of unacceptable uses–behavior that every school district should prohibit in its AUP.”
Actually, three of my Top 10 Unacceptable Uses have already been discussed in previous columns. Last month’s column focused on plagiarism, and we have delved pretty deeply into other aspects of copyright violations, noting that restrictions applicable to copying term papers from library encyclopedias or stealing someone else’s “homework” are 100-percent applicable to the world wide web. Similarly, plenty of ink has been spilled on filtering software and policy proscriptions on accessing inappropriate materials. Those already should be on everyone’s list. Here’s another one that you don’t want to overlook.
The state of South Carolina passed a law this summer that requires computer technicians to report to police if they discover (while working on a customer’s computer) sexually explicit material involving children that appear to be under the age of 18 (see story, Page One). This is similar to laws that require photo shops that develop and print film to report customers who ask them to process “kiddie porn.”
School officials already are subject to laws mandating reports of suspected child abuse and other crimes. While lawyers and civil liberties advocates may argue the finer points of privacy and First Amendment law, the application of the underlying principles of these laws to school district AUPs is pretty simple: If it is against the law, it should not be happening on your schools’ computers–and that covers a lot of territory.
About the time schools were shutting down for summer break, police in Westchester County, N.Y., arrested two male high school seniors and charged them with aggravated harassment because they allegedly used a web site to list names and phone numbers of female classmates, along with descriptions of sexual activities supposedly engaged in by classmates. Students need to know that abuse of the internet is far more serious than anonymous scribblings on the walls in the boys’ toilet.
Don’t let this kind of serious misbehavior be excused by your local spare-the-rod or “boys will be boys” whine-ohs. Sexual gossip may be obnoxious, immature, and embarrassing in the locker room, but on the world wide web, it can put the victims in serious danger and it can get the perpetrators locked up.
A good AUP will start with a general statement such as “School computers shall not be used to engage in any illegal act.” You may prefer something less legalistic, such as “Students and staff shall not use school computers or the internet to break the law.” Policies that attempt to educate as well as pontificate may include some examples. Several come to mind in this genre: using your eMail account to sell drugs online, using a chat room for gang meetings, sending threats to classmates, intentionally spreading computer viruses or worms, or hacking into restricted files or web sites. The last thing you need is a visit from the FBI because an attempt to compromise the security of a Defense Department computer has been traced to a PC in your web-connected computer lab.
Finally, it is not enough to prohibit unlawful acts via computer and tell students and their parents that computer privileges may be suspended for such offenses. Staff, students, parents, and all other users need to be put on notice that, in addition to in-house sanctions, serious violations of the law will be reported to civil authorities and may be prosecuted. Laws vary from state to state, but in many cases school officials are required to report criminal activity in their schools.
The bottom line on this “unacceptable use” of computers is that you want everyone to know that using the school computers to commit crimes will not be tolerated and that the consequences will match the seriousness of the offense.