NEC pleads guilty to eRate scams

NEC Business Network Solutions Inc. (BNS)–part of Japanese electronics giant NEC Corp.–has agreed to pay $20.6 million after pleading guilty to defrauding the eRate program, which helps schools and libraries connect to the internet. More than $3 million of that amount will go to San Francisco schools as a result of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s diligence in reporting the scam, federal officials said.

The settlement isn’t the first decision reached against a company for trying to defraud the eRate, but it’s by far the largest in terms of a dollar amount–and U.S. Justice Department officials hinted there could be more to come.

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eSN Special Focus: eRate Under Fire

BNS was charged in U.S. District Court with allocating contracts and rigging bids for the eRate, which is financed by the contributions of telecommunications carriers to the federal Universal Service Fund.

Prosecutors said the Irving, Texas-based company inflated bids and submitted false and fraudulent documents for reimbursement to the federal government for school projects in California, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arkansas, and South Carolina.

“This conduct deprived the eRate program of fair and competitive prices, caused the program to pay for unnecessary and ineligible items, and as a result, prevented the funding of projects at other needy schools,” said R. Hewitt Pate, assistant attorney general in charge of the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division.

Besides a $4.7 million fine, the company will provide $15.9 million in cash and goods as part of the agreement.

The San Francisco Unified School District will get $3.3 million of the fine as the whistleblower in the case.

“We made mistakes with eRate,” said Gerald P. Kenney, general counsel of NEC America, the unit’s parent company in Dallas. “We’ve acknowledged and accepted responsibility for those mistakes … and taken action to ensure that these problems can’t happen again.” (See the company’s reform pledges immediately after this story.)

Desmond McQuoid, former custodial supervisor for the San Francisco school district, had applied to the eRate in January 2000 and reportedly was approved for more than $49 million in funding to build a computer network with video conferencing capabilities.

But Ackerman refused to accept the money because of questions about the bidding process. She reported her suspicions to the FBI and to the city attorney’s office, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

City investigator George Cothran sifted through thousands of documents and uncovered evidence to suggest that BNS–and at least one other company involved in the district’s wiring project–charged more money than was actually needed and provided kickbacks to McQuoid for choosing them, the Chronicle reported. Cothran reportedly found similar corruption on the part of BNS near Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee, as well as in Arkansas, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Specific school districts were not immediately identified in those cases, however.

In May 2002, City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a false-claims suit on behalf of the San Francisco school district and the state of California. He also turned the office’s findings over to the U.S. Justice Department, which started a nationwide investigation, the Chronicle reported.

In addition to the BNS plea on May 27, the investigation has resulted in guilty pleas by McQuoid, who was sentenced to 21 months in prison, and U.S. Machinery, a California company doing business as USM Distributors, which was ordered to pay $200,000 to the San Francisco school district, the newspaper said.

“This is a big deal–a nationwide scam that had been running three years by the time we caught up with it,” Cothran told the Chronicle. “It looks like we’re going to put an end to this.”

BNS’s plea came just four days after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report charged Atlanta city school officials with widespread waste and mismanagement of eRate funds.

NEC vows stricter
eRate compliance

As part of its settlement agreements with the U.S. Department of Justice, NEC Business Network Solutions (BNS) of Irvine, Texas, said it is putting in place a new, strengthened eRate compliance program.

Gerald P. Kenney, general counsel of NEC America, the unit’s parent company in Dallas, said the alleged instances of fraud were primarily related to a small eRate sales team within a workforce of more than 1,000 BNS employees. He added that the sales team subsequently was dissolved.

“We’re moving our business forward with a full commitment to the highest standards of legal and ethical compliance on every level,” he said.

Elements of the strengthened compliance program, some of which already have been implemented, include:

  • Appointing an Ethics Officer;
  • Appointing a Compliance Officer;
  • Retraining all staff in ethics and compliance policies and procedures;
  • Training or retraining key staff in government procurement requirements;
  • Requiring all relevant staff to read and sign an eRate Code of Conduct;
  • Establishing high-level internal management oversight of all government business;
  • Conducting regular audits of all government contracts;
  • Implementing an anonymous hot-line for employees to report ethical concerns; and
  • Providing regular progress reports to the company’s board and to the federal government.

In addition, the company is creating a new team of highly experienced federal contracting professionals who will handle all government contracts, Kenney said.

Following the newspaper’s report, Rep. James Greenwood, R-Pa., chairman of a House subcommittee investigating eRate fraud, said he would add Atlanta to the committee’s ongoing probe. (See “Congress to probe Atlanta schools’ network costs,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=5072.)

Greenwood launched his inquiry last year after a September 2002 report from the Federal Communications Commission’s Office of the Inspector General cited nearly 30 federal and state investigations involving the questionable use of some $200 million in eRate funds. Because of a lack of funding to watch over the program, the FCC’s inspector general was unable to give “any level of assurance that the program is protected from fraud, waste, and abuse.”

In January 2003, these suspected abuses received further attention when the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) released a report based on the FCC’s investigations. The CPI report called the eRate “honeycombed with fraud and financial shenanigans.”

In the wake of these reports, the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., the agency that administers the eRate, has stepped up its scrutiny of eRate applications. Last year, the SLD denied more than $1 billion in funding requests from suspicious applications.

The agency also formed a task force with the goal of reducing waste, fraud, and abuse. The FCC is considering the recommendations of that group and other eRate stakeholders.

Links:

NEC Business Network Solutions Inc.

U.S. Justice Department

San Francisco Unified School District

Federal Communications Commission

Schools and Libraries Division

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Online screening tool puts school candidates to test

As school leaders struggle to find enough highly qualified educators to staff the nation’s classrooms, a growing number of districts have been turning to the web in hopes of corralling new employees. Now, one North Carolina school system is among the first in the country to adopt a practice that already is catching on in the corporate world: using online exams to screen and assess potential candidates.

Beginning June 1, the Wake County Public School System–the second largest school district in North Carolina, serving more than 104,000 students–will require anyone who applies for a job as a teacher or school principal to take a multiple-choice test online. The exam asks a series of questions intended to highlight certain personality traits and assess how candidates might respond in different situations.

Back in February, Wake County tapped Pennsylvania-based Kenexa, a provider of human-resources services and web-based hiring solutions to Fortune 500 companies, to lend a touch of corporate efficiency to the school system’s slow-moving hiring process.

The district, which has 127 schools and employs more than 7,500 teachers, approached Kenexa with two goals in mind: (a) implementing an automated system that would help hiring managers sift through the tremendous influx of paper-based and electronic resumes received from potential job applicants and (b) creating a selection process that would enable administrators to identify the brightest, best-prepared, and most talented prospects in the application pool.

“With the ongoing shortage of teachers, it has become difficult to both hire and retain the right teachers,” said Toni Patterson, assistant superintendent for the district.

The challenge isn’t unique to Wake County. Nationwide, school systems are reeling from a worsening teacher crunch. Owing to a current crop of aging educators and a continually shrinking pool of college graduates interested in entering the teaching ranks, experts have estimated a need for more than 2 million additional teachers to staff the nation’s classrooms over the next 10 years–a problem that has recently been compounded by stricter high-quality teacher provisions ushered in under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The law requires all states to retain certified teachers in every core subject area, from math and science to language arts, by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

But it isn’t just about recruiting good teachers. The real challenge these days lies in matching the right applicant with the right job, Patterson said. The more comfortable an employee is in his or her position, the more likely he or she is to stick around.

To improve system-wide retention, Wake County will administer two customized online assessments–one for prospective teachers and another for administrators–which should take job-seekers about 20 minutes to complete through a service hosted for the district on Kenexa’s web site.

In formulating the assessments, Kenexa human-resource consultants interviewed top district administrators to get a sense for what skills and personalities have elicited the most success among district employees.

“By matching the right applicant to the right job, we’ll increase the probability of [employee] success and increase retention in the school district,” Patterson said.

The list of questions used as examples during the test period included asking applicants how they would react if they suspected a student of being intoxicated at a school function, or what they would do if a school board member asked them to discuss the educational progress of someone else’s child. Applicants also were asked to describe what they enjoyed about working with children and to give their opinions on equal education.

In peak season, Wake County receives as many as 150 applications a day from job-seekers looking to join what has become one of the nation’s fastest-growing school systems.

“We spend a lot of time just wading through papers,” Patterson said. “The volume of work is significant.”

By bringing the system online, she hopes the district will have a better shot at acting quickly to nab top talent.

“This will allow us to recognize [highly qualified teachers] and follow up with them immediately,” she said.

That’s not to say the automated process eventually will replace the need for in-person interviews.

“Putting [the application] on the web is really the easy part,” said Ame Creglow, director of assessment operations at Kenexa. The hard part, she added, lies in developing a unique “success portfolio” that can assess whether a given applicant is likely to thrive in the existing environment.

Although some applicants often look good on paper–boasting diplomas and accreditations from top-flight schools–not all of them exhibit the kinds of behaviors and attitudes likely to gel with existing staff and students, Creglow said.

To help hiring mangers get a better sense for how well each applicant is likely to fit in, Kenexa worked with district officials to develop a set of questions administrators could ask potential employees during face-to-face interviews. Candidates for in-person interviews are selected based on their overall qualifications and their individual performance ratings on Kenexa’s online assessments.

Creglow said she hopes the new system will enable the district to improve its hiring processes by expanding the overall pool of applicants to job seekers across the internet and by allowing school officials to contact immediately those candidates who demonstrate the skills and qualities necessary to achieve long-lasting success within the school system.

“You really get some in-depth information about [candidates] … before they ever start working in the building,” Creglow said of process. “Retention comes from finding out about the applicant–that personal information that allows you to know and support [him or her].”

In the private sector, Creglow said, the Kenexa system averages 14 days from the point of application to hire. Although Wake County is the only school district in the nation to have used the model, she said, the average hire in the public sector so far is closer to 30 days. She attributed the increase in time to additional hurdles related to state certification discrepancies, background checks, and other administrative roadblocks not commonly encountered in the business world.

Depending on the size of the district and its needs, Creglow said, school districts can expect to pay between $20,000 and $70,000 for the service.

Elsewhere in the nation, school districts have resorted to a number of other tactics to help fill vacant teaching and administrative posts. Last year, administrators at Calumet High School in Gary, Ind., used an online service provided by international personnel firm USA Employment Inc. to interview teaching applicants from India via the web.

Michigan-based staffing giant Kelly Services Inc. offers Kelly Educational Staffing, a substitute-teacher staffing program designed to relieve schools of the administrative burden associated with finding, training, scheduling, and managing the substitute teacher workforce, according to the company’s web site. The service looks to ease certain administrative headaches by conducting the hiring process, completing candidate background checks, providing automated scheduling and reporting tools for better substitute management, and offering retention programs such as vacation pay, weekly wages, holiday-bonus pay, and medical benefits for temporary and temp-to-hire teachers.

Additionally, the Kelly Educational Staffing model includes fulfillment of non-teaching positions. The program also staffs administrative assistants, office clerks, food service staff, and custodians. All positions can be filled using Kelly’s Automated Scheduling System (KASS), an internet- and phone-based scheduling tool that allows teachers to post their absences online, where eligible substitutes can log on or call in to monitor upcoming vacancies and accept assignments based on availability, the company said. To date, Kelly staffs more than 9,000 substitute teachers across 42 states.

Also on the internet, a new product called FacultyFinder.com, from Decade Consulting, LLC, of Montgomery, Ala., lets instructors seeking online teaching positions post resumes and professional profiles, which subscribing institutions can then search to staff growing distance-education programs. Since going live earlier this month, more than 1,200 prospective faculty members have posted profiles to the site, the company said.

Links:

Wake County Public School System
http://www.wcpss.net

Kenexa
http://www.kenexa.com

USA Employment Inc.
http://www.usaemployment.org

Kelly Educational Staffing
http://www.kellyeducationalstaffing.com/eprise/main/internet/kes/home.html

FacultyFinder.com
http://facultyfinder.com

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Congress to probe Atlanta schools’ network costs

In what appears to be shaping up as another black eye for the eRate, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives committee investigating instances of program waste, fraud, and abuse says he will ask the Atlanta school system to turn over documents explaining how it spent–and allegedly mismanaged–$73 million on building what is described as a lavish computer network.

“It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if certain members of that school district find themselves at a table facing a panel of congressmen in Washington,” said Rep. James Greenwood, chairman of the investigations subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported May 23 that school officials built one of the nation’s most elaborate computer networks, often choosing the most costly electronic gear on the market and buying far more than the district needed. The newspaper found more than $3 million worth of idle electronics sitting in storage.

It also found that the school district, which used both local and federal funds, routinely paid too much because it did not seek competitive bids.

The committee chaired by Greenwood, R-Pa., is investigating waste and mismanagement in the federal eRate program, which distributes up to $2.25 billion a year to schools and libraries for telecommunications services, internet access, and the hardware necessary to wire classrooms for the internet.

Financed by the contributions of telecommunications carriers to the Universal Service Fund–the costs of which are passed on to consumers in the form of surcharges on telephone bills–the program does not pay for classroom computers.

Greenwood, who plans his first congressional eRate hearings June 9, characterized the newspaper’s findings in Atlanta, compared with other school districts, as “pretty darn bad.”

“We will have examples of school districts at our hearings who have done this right and school districts who have done it wrong,” he said. “I don’t think Atlanta is likely to be on the did-it-right panel.”

Among the Journal-Constitution‘s findings:

  • At one elementary school, equipment reportedly powerful enough to operate a small school district runs just 20 computers. At another, Atlanta billed the program for electronics for twice as many classrooms as the school has.

  • At three Atlanta elementary schools, the cost of bringing high-speed internet access to classrooms reached about $1 million. Suburban Forsyth County, by contrast, paid about $200,000 for the same result at much larger schools.

  • Price played little role when Atlanta chose vendors, so the district routinely paid them too much. Vendors charged widely different prices for similar equipment. Hundreds of invoices indicate full price when education discounts of up to 45 percent are common.
In a May 25 column in the Journal-Constitution, Atlanta school Superintendent Beverly Hall acknowledged problems with the district’s eRate program, including poor record-keeping and contracting procedures. She blamed most of the shortcomings on former employees and said she has beefed up eRate oversight.

“I am not especially proud of our system’s management of eRate, but I am proud of the results,” Hall wrote. “Children who would not otherwise have even basic internet access are utilizing state-of-the-art technology to learn.”

The Atlanta school board called the network a “state-of-the-art” system that can handle the district’s technology needs for years to come.

But congressional critics of the eRate believe the program gave away too much money to Atlanta schools.

Most school systems in Georgia and across the nation don’t get all the eRate funding they apply for, because the demand is so high. The poorest districts must chip in only between 10 percent and 20 percent of the cost of eRate-eligible projects, and until now they could ask for as much money as they wanted.

“It strikes me that if the Atlanta school board had decided to build this system with its own money, it probably could have built a good reliable Chevrolet,” Greenwood said. “If it had been using federal monies, it might have opted for the Cadillac. But since these were free dollars from telephone subscribers, anonymous telephone subscribers all over the country, they went for the gold-plated Rolls-Royce.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees the eRate, is considering a number of proposed changes to eliminate opportunities for program waste, fraud, and abuse. One of the agency’s ideas is to reduce the maximum discount allowed for internal connections requests, so school systems would have to contribute at least 30 percent of the cost of wiring projects themselves.

Greg Weisiger, eRate coordinator for the state of Virginia, said the problems in Atlanta demonstrate why this might be a good idea.

“They evidently did a lot of bad things, and I wish Virginia’s schools could have had some of that money,” Weisiger said. He added that the city’s example should give the FCC an incentive “to establish regulations governing ‘economic reasonableness’ as a criteria for evaluating funding requests.”

eSchool News attempted to reach Atlanta superintendent Hall for comment on the eRate story, but a call placed to her office’s media relations department was not returned.

Links:

Rep. James Greenwood, R-Pa.
http://www.house.gov/greenwood

Atlanta Public Schools
http://www.atlanta.k12.ga.us

Atlanta Journal-Constitution
http://www.ajc.com

Federal Communications Commission
http://www.fcc.gov

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Accessibility goal: Tear down barriers to virtual schooling

For hundreds of thousands of students across the United States, virtual schooling–instruction that takes place entirely online–has opened educational doors previously inaccessible. But for students who are blind, visually impaired, or who have certain other disabilities, cyber-education programs might actually create more barriers than they remove.

Bringing down those barriers was the objective addressed by a select group of special-education experts and industry executives who convened earlier this month at the National Summit on Disability and Distance Education in Washington, D.C. Their goal was to form an agenda that would help make the promise of virtual instruction a reality for the nation’s special-needs learners.

“Technology is a huge barrier for students with disabilities,” said conference leader Sarah Rule, director of the National Center on Disability and Access to Education. “Are we providing captioning for our deaf students who participate in live-video instruction? In a real-time virtual classroom, how do students with little or no use of their hands activate a microphone to participate in multi-site conversations? With increases in the use of online education, do people stop to think about how a blind student could take an online quiz or read class notes?”

In most schools across the country, the answer to these questions is a resounding “no.” Although 95 percent of postsecondary institutions use the web to offer distance-education programs, only 18 percent of institutions make the content accessible to students with disabilities, according to a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics.

At the K-12 level, this situation slowly is changing. Thanks in part to the No Child Left Behind Act, K-12 school systems now are charged with ensuring that mentally and physically disabled students reach the same achievement benchmarks as their peers.

The law’s effects could be felt at the college level, too, because it has provided new motivation for technology vendors (including makers of commercially available software for online instruction). Universally accessible solutions are available to more students, which broadens the potential customer base while simultaneously protecting lucrative school contracts from regulatory or policy sanctions.

Throughout the two-day conference in Washington, held May 11 and 12, stakeholders from industry and education discussed how online course materials–and the assistive technologies that often are required to access them–could be improved to accommodate all students, regardless of disability.

Experts suggested a three-pronged approach to the problem, including (a) broad shifts in public policy; (b) stronger, more ambitious professional development for distance educators and course designers; and (c) design changes to educational technology that would permit all students–including those with disabilities–to benefit from its use.

Accessibility vs. usability

To make distance-education programs fully accessible to all students, schools and their corporate partners first must address what speakers called a fundamental rift between accessibility and usability. Just because a solution adheres to a set of predetermined accessibility standards doesn’t necessarily mean the technology will make learning any easier on the student, participants said.

“The difference between accessible and usable–or easy and comfortable to use–is sometimes worlds apart,” said Norm Coombs, professor emeritus from the Rochester Institute of Technology and chief executive officer of EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information), a provider of online technology training for persons with disabilities that has reached more than 4,000 people in three dozen countries since its inception in 1993.

Coombs, who is blind, said schools need to provide “direct” accessibility of hardware, software, and course materials, so that when students with disabilities log onto distance-education programs and other online learning resources, they are not required to jump through additional hoops before proceeding.

For example, frames and other elements of online course design can trip up a user’s screen-reading software. If visually impaired students must change or adjust the settings on their software each time they try to access various course materials, they’re already at a disadvantage when compared with their peers.

The answer, summit participants said, lies in the creation of distance-education solutions according to the principles of “universal design,” so materials are universally accessible to–and easily usable by–all students, regardless of their disability.

But that’s easier said than done. Distance-education providers and advocates for disabled learners are faced with several questions: Which set of standards should institutions follow when designing courseware that is universally accessible? How can schools be encouraged to adopt this practice? How can companies be encouraged to develop universally accessible ed-tech products?

Coombs was part of a working group that proposed solutions to these and other questions. Here are the group’s key recommendations:

  • Collect all existing accessibility standards in a single location for companies and schools to draw from. This collection of standards should include those spelled out in Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998.

  • Design a curriculum for schools to implement that teaches how to make web sites and online courses fully accessible. (Cyndi Rowland, project director for WebAIM, a project of Utah State University’s Center for Persons with Disabilities, reported that her organization is already working on a version of this.)

  • Create a model reporting tool that students can use to inform schools of their non-compliance.

  • Persuade the accrediting institutions to consider whether a distance-education program is fully accessible before granting accreditation.

  • Create an awards or recognition program for universities that adopt best practices in accessibility, and share these best practices among schools nationwide.

Policy and funding

Funding is also a challenge, participants noted. Many argue that the time and money it takes to develop universally accessible distance-education solutions have precluded smaller vendors from entering the market. Without competition, these advocates contend, there is little or no motivation for larger providers to invest in improving their solutions. That often translates into bad news for disabled students, many of whom are forced to use tools that only loosely address their specific needs.

To raise public awareness of the issue–and influence those who hold the purse strings–summit participants called on stakeholders to take the conversation to lawmakers on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.

“Disability access is often left out of public-policy discussions,” according to Hilary Goldmann of the Higher Education Information Technology Alliance, a group dedicated to pursuing the collective interests of libraries and colleges in matters of federal information technology policy.

Goldmann said the idea behind generating more interest in this policy strand is to connect the different revenue streams that can be used to feed disability and distance education.

That might be happening already on the federal level.

The summit took place just one day before the U.S. Senate passed a bill that aims to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for the first time in its history, advocates of the bill say.

If the bill becomes law, the federal government would contribute 40 percent of the cost of educating the nation’s special-needs students–the full amount specified by the act–within the next seven years.

Lawmakers say the revised law would reduce the paperwork burden on teachers and would unite parents and schools to better meet the needs of children with disabilities. The program currently contributes $11 billion in federal money to special-education projects.

Summit participants also said they would petition lawmakers to address the accessibility of distance-education courses when Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act in the coming months.

Links:

National Center on Disability and Access to Education
http://ncdae.org

EASI: Equal Access to Software and Information
http://www.rit.edu/~easi

WebAIM: Web Accessibility in Mind
http://www.webaim.org

Higher Education Information Technology Alliance
http://www.heitalliance.org

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This new primer paints a clearer picture of education research

The Education Commission of the States and Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) have launched a new online tool to help policy makers, education leaders, reporters, and other stakeholders better understand and evaluate education research. Called “A Policymaker’s Primer on Education Research: How To Understand, Evaluate, and Use It,” this interactive, online document helps stakeholders answer three questions: what does the research say; is the research trustworthy; and how can the research be used to guide policy? The primer–which should prove to be an invaluable resource for school leaders, given NCLB’s new emphasis on scientifically based research–provides an overview of research methods and statistics, intermingled with flash animation and links to examples, additional discussions, pop-up definitions of technical terms, and an education research glossary. It also features tools to guide users through an assessment of research studies. Plus, there is a special “Understanding Statistics Tutorial,” and another tutorial on searching the federal Educational Research and Information Center (ERIC) database. For users who want an abbreviated version of the primer, there is an “Applied Quick Primer” keyed only to the most basic sections. The primer was written by McREL Principal Researcher Patricia Lauer and funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

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Berg beheading tests school policies on graphic video

The easy availability over the internet of graphic video footage showing an American civilian being beheaded in Iraq has caused problems for some school administrators.

Teachers in at least six states–California, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Texas–have been disciplined or are under investigation for showing the video to students during class, according to Associated Press reports. In other reported cases, students were caught using school computers to access the video on their own.

The video of the beheading of American civilian contractor Nicholas Berg, 26, was posted on a web site linked to the Islamic extremist group al-Qaida earlier in May. American television networks broadcast preliminary scenes but deemed the beheading too grisly to show.

The filtering software used by most schools can be set up to block the site where the video originated, but the images have cropped up on a host of other sites around the globe. More important, educators agree, is the need for school leaders to establish and communicate clear policies for what kinds of video images are considered appropriate for students to view at school.

In Ontario, Ore., the local school board disciplined two high school social studies teachers on May 21 for showing students the gruesome video of Berg’s beheading.

Students had the option of not watching the beheading as it was shown in Ontario High School classrooms on May 13, according to school board director Evelyn Dame, but many did.

Dame declined to identify the teachers or specify how they had been disciplined.

Neither Dame nor Carol Kitamura, the district’s personnel director, could provide the number of students who chose to view the beheading.

The school board has no specific policy on graphic images, Dame said, but could discipline the teachers for violating a policy on presenting material not appropriate to the maturity level or competence of students.

Dame said the teachers agreed to penalties instituted by the board.

Kitamura said the teachers claimed they showed the video as part of social studies curriculum on current events. Kitamura said the teachers showed remorse and regret for their decision to show the video. The board sent letters to parents of the children saying they may have watched the beheading at school.

Dame added that parents should have been involved in the decision by the teachers to show the video.

With the board’s May 21 decision, the school district became the latest in the country to discipline teachers who showed the video in classrooms.

High school teachers in Texas and Ohio have been placed on administrative leave or are under investigation for showing the video. One teacher in Texas is under investigation for reportedly allowing students to watch the beheading during a classroom pizza party.

A high school teacher and track coach in Oklahoma also might face disciplinary action for letting students use her computer to connect to the internet and view video of the beheading.

Putnam City High School Principal Don Wentroth said the incident happened May 18 during a study hall for members of the girls’ track team.

“It was a mistake in judgment for this teacher to show that video clip to a small group of students,” Wentroth said. “She’s made a mistake, and she’s been making calls to parents and talking to students.”

The teacher’s name has not been released. Wentroth said he met with parents May 20 to address their concerns.

“The parents I’ve visited with are satisfied, I believe, in the way we’re handling things,” he said.

“This kind of video is definitely inappropriate to show at school. I don’t believe [students will] be scarred or harmed permanently from something like this, but we’ll be available if the students are having nightmares, trouble concentrating, or other problems and they need to talk about it.”

District spokesman Steve Lindley said such a video would be included in the district’s policy banning students or faculty from using school computers to view obscene material.

“I definitely think this would be considered obscene,” he said.

In South Dakota, a teacher at Dell Rapids High School will not be disciplined for showing students the video, the school board president said May 21. The board decided its policy on showing such graphic images was unclear.

President Robert Harms said the board will discuss what kinds of video are appropriate to show in classrooms. The board could make changes over the summer, he said.

The school’s current policy prohibits only pornography from being viewed on the internet, school officials said.

Dell Rapids students said the teacher was not in favor of the students watching the video, but they wanted to watch it as part of current events. No one objected in a class vote, they said.

Links:

Ontario High School
http://www.ontariosd.k12.or.us/ohs/

Dell Rapids Public School District 49-3
http://hs.dellrapids.k12.sd.us/

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New rule puts warning labels on explicit spam

School leaders might have an easier time trying to filter sexually explicit internet spam from their students’ and staff members’ computers, thanks to a new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) rule that went into effect May 19.

According to the new rule, unsolicited commercial eMail that contains sexually oriented material must include the words “SEXUALLY EXPLICIT” in the subject line.

The rule also bars graphic images from appearing in the opening body of the message. Instead, the recipient must take some action in order to see the objectionable material, either by scrolling down in the eMail or by clicking on a provided link.

Jonathan Kraden, staff attorney with the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said the label “should help the computers to filter if a computer user decides to set [his or her] filtering system up to recognize these two words.”

He added, “It should also help eMail recipients filter visually, so they can go through their mail and decide which messages they want to see.”

Spammers who violate the rule face possible imprisonment and criminal fines of up to $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for an organization. But skeptics say tracking down violators can be difficult, because spammers often try to escape being directly identified by using forged return addresses or by bouncing their eMail messages through unprotected relay computers on the internet.

Links:

Federal Trade Commission
http://www.ftc.gov

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Schools bring troops closer to home via internet

Innovative schools around the United States are using technology to enable distant parents–including troops in Iraq and other remote locations–to feel a little more togetherness, even if the get-togethers are only virtual.

Some Central Texas school districts plan to make this year’s high school graduation ceremonies accessible on the internet or by videoconference so soldiers deployed to Iraq from nearby Fort Hood can watch, officials said.

In addition to watching the ceremony, a deployed parent will be able to talk to his or her graduating student one-on-one via a private videoconference, said Bob Massey, a Killeen Independent School District spokesman.

So far, more than 250 soon-to-be graduates have signed up to participate in videoconferencing, he said.

Ceremonies for four Killeen high schools, plus one ceremony each for Salado, Temple, Copperas Cove, and Belton school districts, can be accessed on the Killeen Independent School District web site, Massey said.

The commencement ceremonies are May 25-30, he said.

Thousands of Fort Hood soldiers have deployed to Iraq since war broke out last year.

A webcast of the Sherman High School graduation ceremony in Seth, W.Va., to an Army parent in Iraq led the school to use its internet and video facilities to reunite a school employee with her son, who has been stationed overseas for more than a year.

Donna Massey hadn’t seen her son, Army Sgt. Robert Massey Jr., who is stationed in Germany, for 14 months.

But mother and son got the chance to see one another on May 20, via the internet, through a one-way, video-only connection.

Sherman High School, where Donna Massey has worked as a cook for 23 years, broadcast its evening graduation ceremony live over the web so another soldier, who is stationed in Iraq, could see his daughter get her diploma.

When Massey found out about the 6 p.m. webcast, she mentioned to school officials that it would be nice if she could get on camera to get a message to her son in Germany.

“They announced it here at school, and I said, ‘If I could be here early, then maybe I could say something to my son,”‘ she told the Associated Press. “They came back and said ‘Most definitely.”‘

The webcast did not include audio, so Massey and other family members made signs out of white poster board.

One sign was decorated with two American flags, another was adorned with yellow ribbons, all had messages such as “We miss you,” and “We’re so proud of you.”

And the messages were not just for Sgt. Massey, said his mother, but also for his wife, Heidi, and 3-year-old daughter, Kaleigh, who are with him in Germany.

The webcast project started with Sherry Flynn, who was determined that her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Flynn, get to see their middle daughter, Meagan, graduate with about 80 other seniors.

“It was absolutely wonderful,” Sherry Flynn said the evening of the graduation ceremony. “Meagan had a sign that said ‘I made it Dad.’ She has a lot of friends in the school and they were happy her daddy got to watch her graduate.”

Sherry Flynn set the project in motion when she came to the school May 19 to see what could be done so that her husband could see the ceremony. That’s when computer science teacher Randy Herron and his students set to work.

With the help of Sherman alumnus Brad Barker, who is now a student at West Virginia University Tech, a web cam was set up and linked to the school’s web site.

Sgt. Flynn called the school the morning of the graduation ceremony to make sure everything was set, and thanked school personnel for setting up the broadcast.

“I’m just glad that we have the technology at Sherman to be able to do that,” Principal Theresa Lonker said. “We have a lot of students and a lot of school personnel that have just stepped up to the plate.”

Herron and his students have undertaken similar projects in the past. The school was the first in the state to broadcast a football game over the internet a few years ago, Herron said.

“We could make it an annual event,” Herron said of the graduation webcast.

Links:

Killeen Independent School District
http://www.killeenisd.org

Sherman High School
http://www.shermanhigh.com/

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Panel: Leadership is key to meeting ed tech challenges

Effective leadership within the education, government, and business communities is critical to the successful integration of technology in the nation’s schools, concluded panelists who spoke at Intel Corp.’s Third Annual Visionary Conference in Washington, D.C., May 11.

Among the attributes speakers used to define “effective leadership” were the recognition that ed tech is really about education, not technology; the ability to establish and communicate a clear and common vision for technology’s use in schools; and the ability to change and manage change.

Fulfilling its role as a corporate leader, the company said, Intel organized the conference to help its business partners better serve education.

“It’s really to bring education visionaries into a unique venue and talk about what a connected community [requires],” said Terry Smithson, Intel’s education marketing manager for North and South America.

From its Teach to the Future program, which has supplied hundreds of millions of dollars for teacher training to schools nationwide, to its Model Schools program, which helps selected schools become showcase sites for how technology can advance teaching and learning, “Intel has always had a leadership role in education,” Smithson said.

At the conference, top executives from companies and education groups alike–including the National School Boards Association, Scantron Corp., Pasco Scientific, SchoolNet, LearnStar, and others–gathered to hear invited “visionaries” discuss the technology challenges facing schools today.

The day’s conversation kept coming back to leadership.

“It always comes down to leadership,” said Kim Quinn, coordinator of education technology for the Maine Department of Education.

Before Maine could launch its groundbreaking one-to-one laptop initiative, her department had to earn support from the state’s leaders, Quinn explained. To gain buy-in from legislators, Quinn’s staff set up a wireless network in the legislature and gave each legislator a wireless device so lawmakers could see for themselves the impact laptops would have. Now, the state’s one-to-one laptop initiative is an exemplary technology project for the nation.

Rod Ziolkowski, science teacher and department chair at Whitney High School in California, one of Intel’s Model Schools, made a similar point, saying that only when industry and government leaders place value on technology for learning will it become truly ubiquitous in schools.

“In Iraq, the soldiers have the best technology because someone decided it was essential for survival,” Ziolkowski said. In education, leaders currently place more value on standards and test scores, and “it’s robbing the poorest of our students,” he said.

Panelists went on to say that effective leaders must establish and communicate a common vision for the use of technology in their schools.

Like successful corporations, schools should establish the same goals and same message for everyone, said Bridget Foster, director of the California Learning Resource Network. “We have to be consistent, or we aren’t going to get anywhere,” she said.

Diny Golder, executive director of JES & Co., expanded on this idea by saying that successful companies share three common characteristics that schools could replicate.

First, successful companies have a common vision they easily share with everyone. Second, professional development is tied to that vision and offered to everyone, including all support staff and stakeholders.

Third, successful companies have the ability to change and manage that change. For example, if a school district decides to hold virtual teacher-parent conferences, school officials would ask: What’s involved? How do we get that done? How do we manage the success of those two items?

Leaders’ focus also should change, panelists said.

“I think we have focused too much on technology in the past. We should focus on education,” Quinn said. “We need to think differently.”

She added, “Our whole problem is that we market ourselves as ed tech. We keep saying ‘ed tech, ed tech.’ It’s [about] education!”

Golder agreed, saying it’s time to move the conversation beyond the need for technology in schools and toward finding solutions. “It’s like coming together to talk about why electricity is important,” she said.

Getting teachers to make decisions based on data is also challenging for school leaders, panelists said.

“We can have all the data in the world, but unless you use [them] well, it doesn’t help,” said Scott Price, director of technology and grants development for California’s Fullerton Joint Union High School District.

Teachers can either get defensive about low scores compared with their colleagues or they can use the data well, he said.

Teachers are concerned about the “gotcha” effect, said John Porter, associate superintendent and chief information officer for the Montgomery County, Md., Public Schools. His district is trying to educate teachers that information is a tool that can help them be more successful.

Finally, school leaders need to focus on sustainable funding for technology, panelists said.

“I think we need to be concerned about funding for the future,” said David A. Spencer, president and CEO of the Michigan Virtual University.

“School districts can’t do this alone,” Porter added. Public and private partnerships are essential.

Links:

Intel Corp.
http://www.intel.com

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Study: Most kids admit to stealing online content

Most students know it’s against the law to share copyright-protected software, games, music, and movies online–yet many admit to downloading such files anyway, according to a new survey.

Educators and others agree that anti-piracy education is a key component to encouraging ethical computer use among students. But only 18 percent of the students surveyed said they learned about copyright law from a teacher or other educator.

The nationwide poll, conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the Business Software Alliance (BSA), asked more than 1,100 students–ages eight to 18–about their attitudes toward copyright law and internet behavior, including uploading and downloading copyrighted files through online peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing networks.

According to the survey, 91 percent of students knew that books are protected by copyright law; 88 percent knew that movies are copyrighted; 88 percent, music; 86 percent, software; 83 percent, games; and 64 percent, web sites. Yet more than half of students (53 percent) admitted to downloading music files, and a third (32 percent) said they download games. Fewer kids said they download large digital files, such as commercial software (22 percent) and movies (17 percent).

“Unfortunately, many kids and teens continue to download copyrighted works illegally–even though more than half of them think there are laws against downloading digital works,” said Diane Smiroldo, vice president of public affairs for BSA.

“What’s most alarming is that eight out of 10 kids and teens understand the definition of copyright and nearly all of them, especially teens, are aware that software, music, and movies are protected by copyright,” Smiroldo said. “The fact that kids know stealing software is wrong, and yet they behave like it’s OK, clearly illustrates a challenging ethical dilemma.”

Students indicated they are more worried about technological problems while downloading digital media than they are about the ethics of stealing, the survey revealed.

When illegally downloading, young people worry more about accidentally downloading a computer virus (60 percent) than they do about whether they can get in trouble with the law (50 percent) or accidentally downloading spyware (43 percent). Only 29 percent worry that the act is wrong. Girls worry more about all risks, and boys (19 percent) are more likely to say that none of these things worry them.

Risks aside, those who think it’s OK to download software illegally gave the following reasons:

  • I do not have money to pay for software (51 percent);
  • I wouldn’t use the software if I had to pay for it (35 percent);
  • Lots of people do it (33 percent);
  • It doesn’t hurt anybody when I do this (26 percent);
  • No one has ever told me not to (19 percent);
  • I won’t get in trouble for doing it (15 percent); and
  • My parents have said it is OK (8 percent).

“What’s of most concern is that kids take big risks to steal software, and they perceive it as a victimless crime. One in four says ‘it doesn’t hurt anybody when I do this,’ and that underscores a cyber ethics education deficiency at home and in the schools,” Smiroldo said.

Most students said their education about laws protecting creative works online stems from watching television (59 percent). Other sources include a parent (44 percent), the internet (44 percent), advertisements (36 percent), friends (30 percent), and–at the bottom of the list–teachers (18 percent). Younger kids (ages eight to 12) are more likely to say they learn about copyright laws from their parents (44 percent).

“It’s critical that parents and teachers continue to educate our young people about the importance of cyber ethics and respect for intellectual property. Parents should supervise their kids’ activities online, since much of this behavior takes place at home,” Smiroldo said.

“Our hope is that parents and educators utilize the many resources available to teach youth to become good cyber citizens, so that these kids do the right thing as they get older.”

To help teach kids to respect digital copyright law and become “good cyber citizens,” BSA offers parents, teachers, and students a number of free cyber-ethics resources, including its “Play It Safe in Cyberspace” curriculum, which was co-produced by the children’s publisher Weekly Reader. Since its initial distribution in 2002, the curriculum has reached more than 13 million students, parents, and teachers, BSA said.

Educators contacted by eSchool News said they weren’t surprised by the poll results. They agreed that schools should teach students about the appropriate use of copyright-protected materials–and should enforce these expectations during the school day–but many also said adults are at least partly to blame for the problem.

“I believe students understand the concept of copyright, but have few models of appropriate behavior to follow,” said Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology at the Plano Independent School District in Texas. “Xeroxing of printed works, videotaping, ‘TiVo’-ing, ripping CDs, scanning, et cetera, are all techniques used in the workplace and at home by adults–which provides the illusion of appropriate use.”

Rick Bauer, chief information officer for The Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., took the argument a step further.

“It is wrong to equip our students digitally without teaching them the values of honesty and integrity, and that would include making sure faculty and school machines are up to license specifications as well,” he said. “I wonder if students are watching us more than listening to us.”

Links:

Business Software Alliance
http://www.bsa.org

Poll results
http://www.bsa.org/usa/research

Play It Safe in Cyberspace
http://www.PlayItCyberSafe.com

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