When I began this series of columns about acceptable-use policies (AUPs), I intended to focus on some of the nuances of AUP development. By this point in the new century, I figured that everyone pretty much had the basics down pat. I assumed that most school districts already had AUPs up and running and were interested in fine-tuning the implementation phase.

Then I started getting eMails that began, “My superintendent has asked me to draft an acceptable-use statement,” or “I just got appointed to a committee that is supposed to write our AUP.” I soon realized that some school systems were way ahead of the high-tech game, but many others were just getting started. This month, it’s back to basics and the foundation for everything–the “P” in AUP.

Probably the most fundamental question I received via web-mail was, “We have a one-page agreement that each staff member or student signs before they can use the internet. That is not really a policy document. Why do they call computer agreements between schools and their students and staff ‘acceptable-use policies’?”

Good question. There are actually a number of components to a comprehensive AUP (including the agreements and permissions you have between the school and users or parents), but some school districts are missing the most crucial element: a policy document adopted by the board of education that establishes districtwide rules for use of the internet.

In some states (like Kentucky), the legislature has passed a law requiring the state board to promulgate regulations and each local board to adopt policies. In other jurisdictions, local districts are left to their own devices.

It is a given that the school board needs to act. An AUP written by the local school computer teacher and handed out by the principal has some basic legal flaws. Foremost is the lack of authority for some important actions, including penalties for violation of the rules. In addition, having a different computer or internet policy for each school is no better than having individual school policies on drugs, graduation requirements, or prayers at football games.

In the absence of a state law or regulation providing otherwise, what should a good board policy include?

It may seem relatively unimportant, but one question a school board should ask before it spends a lot of tax dollars on computers and networks is, “Why do we want our students to use computers–and how do we want them to be used?” More to the point, “Why do we want our students who use computers to have access to the internet?” Once the seminal question of why is answered and understood, it’s much easier to make a list of the “acceptable” uses for your school district.

Another important policy issue is the division of responsibility. Where does your board draw the lines of accountability between the school, the teacher, the student, and the parent for web-based activities? If the school board is going to disclaim responsibility for online actions or put the entire onus for proper behavior on students or faculty, it needs to do that in writing and have a public vote. Suspension of access to school computers, eMail, or the internet needs to have the full authority of a written board policy, so the policy needs to define prohibited web activities and the resulting penalties.

In a nutshell, the board should put into writing the basic rules for use and abuse of the web. In addition, the policy should establish the consequences for violation of web rules and the process for determining accountability and assessing punishment.

Comprehensive AUPs also deal with issues such as privacy, copyright abuse, access to chat rooms or news groups, filtering, hacking, URL logs, downloading (software or files), installing personal software, eMail etiquette, and other legal or ethical issues. One way to do this is for the board to adopt a “Code of Conduct for Internet Users.”

Finally, the policy should establish an implementation process that will provide guidelines for teachers and other staff on supervising student use of the web, give adequate notice to students and parents of board policy and enforcement procedures, obtain informed consent from parents for studentsí’ “field trips” onto the web, and include a review or audit process that will provide feedback to the board and taxpayers about the benefits being derived from using tax dollars for computers and connectivity.

If your school district already has implemented web-access tools and AUP agreements with students and parents, it may be time for a review. Tighten up the language, and fill in the weak spots. But most of all, make sure your technology implementation program is firmly grounded on a clearly written policy document that has been adopted by the school board.