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Navigate the Legal Maze

Is your district technology program on the right side of the law? Find out in this overview of hot-button legal issues.

By Rita Oates | April/May 2003

The legal ramifications of school technology keep growing from year to year. Increasingly, every aspect of educational technology use touches on pressing legal topics such as copyright, privacy, filtering, and software licensing.


Many school leaders have had to learn about these issues on the job, because few colleges of education have covered such topics in detail in the past. To help you sort through the issues, we've drawn on the expertise of several technology directors. Although this article does not represent legal advice, it may help you keep your district on a firm legal footing.

An ounce of prevention goes a long way toward keeping litigators away. Software licensing is a good example, as the following story illustrates.

Several years ago, a district technology director in Florida noticed homemade disk labels on a software program used by a large number of students at an elementary school. When asked about the software, a classroom teacher responded: "Oh, our PTSA president thought she could save us some money, so she made 30 copies of every piece of software we own."

Later that day, the technology director carried a large box overflowing with illegal software out of the school and breathed a sigh of relief—the school was now "clean." But the situation could have had serious consequences: The penalty for each illegal piece of software could have been as much as $100,000—and up to one year in jail for the lead administrator of the site. If caught, the school could have been out $5 million, and the principal might have needed a really good—and expensive—lawyer.

"As a school tech director, the first thing I would find out is whether all the software in the school is licensed," says Gary Becker, a district administrator and legal expert in central Florida's Seminole County Schools. Becker adds that schools should also make sure they have network and broadcast rights to all materials used in the school.

School administrators should be on the lookout for well-intentioned attempts to cut corners on software licenses. The fact is, legal software licenses always provide the most cost-effective solution, because a school's penalty—if caught—will be much more costly than any legal license agreement.

These days, many schools require students and staff to sign a policy that clearly outlines acceptable and unacceptable use of the school's network, Internet connection, and computers—as well as the penalties for breaking the rules. Commonly called an Acceptable Use Policy (AUP), this document should be a high priority for all schools.

"The technology coordinator at the school site needs to make sure that the AUP is used and understood," Becker says. It's also important that administrators know who is expected to enforce the AUP rules. In some districts, the technology coordinator may be expected to inform school staff about AUP rules, while a district administrator is the designated person to police its use.

If you're drafting an AUP from scratch, make the process as inclusive as possible in order to help ensure compliance with the rules, school leaders recommend.

"The district AUP should be written by a collaboration of community members and stakeholders within the school system," says Judy Finch, who is the head of the Learning Technology Support Group in Maryland's Prince George's County Schools. "The language of the AUP should be simple, clear, and easily understood by all students and tied to the Code of Student Conduct."

Acceptable-use policies have gained a heightened importance now that the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires their use in schools that receive E-Rate funding; more information on this topic is available from the Universal Service Administrative
Co. (See Useful Links.)

The growing surveillance capabilities of computers are increasingly raising privacy issues—and schools are no exception. Here's a recent example: In a third-grade classroom at Bonner Elementary School in Daytona Beach, Florida, a live camera is used to send images of students through an Internet connection to two teacher education college programs, where adults watch and learn.

"Our preservice teachers observe a master teacher interact with her students and comment on what is happening," says Patty LeBlanc of Stetson University, which administers the program. "We don't disrupt the classroom by taking lots of people into the room. But the third-grade students need to know that they are being watched, and we need permission from their parents to do so."

Not all uses of the Internet have an expectation of privacy, however. E-mail use is a good example: Experts say school administrators should make sure teachers and other staff members understand that e-mail provided by the school district is public and subject to monitoring.

"Anything you write can be read by your boss," Gary Becker says. He strongly recommends including this warning in information packets for new employees, and to provide reminders to current staff that district e-mail communication should be considered public.

Similarly, there is no right to privacy in web surfing when using a school district's Internet connection. A district administrator tells of having to track a teacher's web site usage after she started suspecting he was looking at pornographic sites on a school computer.

"It's sad, but we had to document this behavior and get him into counseling," the administrator says. In that case, the teacher was lucky to keep his job.

The problem of students misappropriating text and images from web sites is perhaps the most prevalent tech-related legal issue for schools today. This is an area where technology directors have to work hard to make students understand that copyright holders own the rights to their words and images, and that using others' work without proper attribution is illegal and unethical.

Starting in the early grades, teachers should use every opportunity to teach about plagiarism and how to properly document information taken from web sources, says Michele Parga, technology consultant in the Los Angeles County Office of Education. Administrators should also regularly remind teachers to focus on information literacy issues in the classroom, she says.

Some sites on the web offer students photos and images that may be copied freely. Parga recommends, a site that offers photos in the public domain—without copyright or royalty restrictions. Other sources, such as Microsoft's Encarta Encyclopedia, also give broad permission to use images as part of academic work, provided proper attribution is given.

Schools that receive E-Rate funding are required by the CIPA law to filter Internet access on workstations used by students and staff.

In some districts, the easiest method of accomplishing this is to rely on state-provided filtering solutions. For example, the Seminole County Public Schools recently switched to using a state filter available through FIRN, the Florida Information Resource Network.

"It's less work for the district person to filter through the state, rather than through a private company," Becker says about making the switch in his district. Filters aren't perfect, however, so district IT staff should ask teachers to alert them when good sites are blocked by mistake—or when inappropriate sites sneak through the filter.

For this reason, many school leaders recommend making new teachers aware of the district's filters, how they work, and how to report discrepancies. Typically, colleges of education do not filter Internet access, which means that new teachers may never have worked in a filtered environment before.

Helping teachers develop their information literacy skills in this way is important, says Kurt Richter, a teacher trainer at Indiana University. With proper guidance, he says, "teachers quickly learn the difference between and" (Hint: The latter is a pornography site.)

Two final pieces of advice: Use your online research skills to keep up with new developments in all of these areas. And, always check with your district's legal counsel before taking action on any legal matters. If you follow those simple rules, you will stand a good chance of keeping your district on the straight and narrow.

About the Author

Rita Oates is president of Oates Associates Inc., an educational technology consulting firm. She is a former school administrator and journalist.

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