A friend of mine (We will call him Joe.) serves on the school board of a local independent school district, and he is constantly bombarded with questions, issues, and complaints from parents in the district. Although he can do very little about some of the things he hears, he nonetheless gets an earful from parents. He passes along the complaints and raises discussions during board meetings to resolve what is within his power. This is the normal routine for Joe as most problems are low-level issues and can be easily resolved.
However, one complaint he received was particularly striking and hit him personally. I recently interviewed Joe about his crusade to ensure students know and understand digital responsibility in his school district.
Dr. B: “Tell me what happened this past spring with the students at Smith Middle School.”
Joe: “I could not let this one go. It bothered me to my core and blew my mind. We (the school district) provide laptop computers to students starting in 6th grade. The devices are used to complete assignments in class, research content from the Internet, and communicate with the teacher. They have access to certain websites, and we had been assured that inappropriate content would be blocked per federal and state laws.”
Dr. B: “It’s not uncommon for students to try to get around the filters to access inappropriate content.”
Joe: “True. But these students conducted a simple Google Images search and found pornographic images. The students used the search term “Glory” hoping to find pictures of a flag or American images. They clearly found something different.”
Dr. B: “How did the students respond?”
Joe: “They told their teacher immediately, but the students were disciplined and that is when the trouble began. The students insisted that they did not purposely seek those images, but administration would not believe the students. The principals trusted the Internet filters we had in place. We later found out the filters were flawed.”
Dr. B: “How did you discover that the filters were flawed?”
Joe: “Unfortunately, another group of students doing a similar research project also found pornographic images using simple search terms. Later in the day, the same issue occurred at another middle school. We now had a trend, and we had a problem.”
The technology department researched the issue and found that the filtering programs that they had in place were working but ineffective. The district did not have any checks and balances in place to ensure that the filters were up to date and working effectively. After a thorough investigation into the issue, several members of the district’s technology department were fired over the incident.
Joe: “Our students are taught digital responsibility starting in 5th grade to prepare for using laptops in middle school. In all of the cases that were made aware, the students did the right thing. They reported the issue to their teacher. They followed the rules. They were good digital citizens.
The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires that schools and libraries receiving federal funding put Internet filters in place to protect children from incidents such as these. It keep students from intentionally and unintentionally accessing inappropriate content during their research. Clearly, these filters can fail if districts aren’t adequately prepared to protect children from inappropriate content. As such, school districts should prepare students at a young age how to be responsible when using the Internet.
Digital Citizenship should be a priority for school districts expanding their Internet usage for students. The concepts are simple and can be used throughout their educational and work careers. Teaching concepts like cyberbullying, Internet safety, and how to report offenders and issues should be part of every elementary curriculum.
School districts should also ensure they are up to date and in compliance with CIPA regulations for filtering content from the Internet. They should have professionals on staff who are knowledgeable about filtering software and methods to constantly monitor and test the Internet to protect students.
Joe: “Protecting students is everyone’s responsibility. But protection does not mean that you do it one time and you are finished. We need to remind, rehearse, and inspect all of our digital tools to keep our kids and teachers safe. It should be a priority for everyone.”