October 19, 2006
Administrators discuss students' Internet use
CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Asking rhetorically, "Are we the Internet police?" attorney Shane L. Aldridge told a roomful of school administrators concerned about cyber misbehavior, "There is no hard and fast law that governs students' use of the Internet on their own time."
His afternoon presentation was just one of several during the daylong School Administrators' Legal Roundtable put on by Southern Illinois University Carbondale at its Student Center Oct. 11.
The roundtable, now in its 10th year, brings together school superintendents, principals and lawyers to discuss areas of concern. This year's workshop included sessions on such subjects as tenure, evaluation and seniority; collective bargaining; homeless students; disciplinary measures and civil rights for both students and staff; and an update on the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act.
Aldridge, a graduate of the SIU School of Law and former middle school special education teacher, now works as an associate in the Springfield office of Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn. The firm, which also has offices in Arlington Heights and Belleville, represents school districts, educational institutions and local government agencies.
The Internet has become a new kind of playground, Aldridge said, with old-style behavior.
"It's pretty much the same thing we have seen for a number of years — teasing, name-calling, 'you're not my friend' — but research has found that its anonymity has allowed bullies to take these things to the extreme," he said.
Citing newspaper accounts of cyber snipers in West Chicago and Franklin County, Aldridge said, "No section of the country is immune."
School administrators who think they won't have problems because they control their computer access could be surprised.
"These days everyone has a cell phone," Aldridge pointed out.
"All the digital technology that's out there can be used to bully our students."
And bully they do.
Citing recent research, Aldridge said, "Half of our students say they have experienced some form of online bullying, and the other half say they have participated in it."
Instead of dying down after awhile, cyber taunting seems to take on a life of its own, going on and on and on with devastating effects. Students fear leaving home, ask to be transferred, sometimes kill themselves.
Merely blocking access to a nasty site won't solve the problem.
"These kids are too smart," Aldridge said.
"I don't know what we can do technologically to stay ahead of them."
Lacking any established legal precedent, school district administrators will have to feel their way, Aldridge said. But they should not necessarily rely on "acceptable use" computer policies written back when schools first put the first clunky predecessors of today's fast, do-everything models on their students' desks.
Aldridge thinks administrators must tie their computer policies into their discipline codes.
"School districts have the right to regulate the use of their equipment when it becomes disruptive to the learning process," he said.
"School districts will have to develop some kind of workable system as to how to handle this, although you won't have anything that is air tight. There will be a gray area. I think your best frontline protection is going to be supervision of your students when they're in school."
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