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Take Control of Tech

By Pamela Wheaton Shorr | August 2007
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Schools across the country are waging a war against technology tools gone bad. Read how some districts defend their classrooms against the new school thuggery—from iPod cheats to cell phone punks and sneaky Web surfers.

How schools handle new media in schools has become the “sex ed” hot button of our era. While administrators, parents, and politicians battle over what the kids ought to be able to do with their electronics, the kids are out there hooking up. Schools are knocking out policies that range from total “abstinence” to total immersion, but despite all the policies, the devices are being used, for better or worse.

 The result? “Schools are fighting a war,” says Robin Raskin, who, as founder of Raising Digital Kids, has been studying the effects of new media on society for the past 25 years. “Every school in the country is grappling with the same issues.” According to Will Richardson, author of Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, we have seen the enemy, and it is us. Adults simply don’t know how to model appropriate digital behavior, he believes, so kids are making up the rules on their own. Is it a case of bad technology leading to bad behavior or good technology with not enough role models? These horror stories should act as a primer.

Candid Camera Gets Ugly

Murphy High School, in downtown Mobile, is the oldest and largest high school in Alabama. Despite its size, the school is a close community, according to Doug Estle, the principal. So Estle and the rest of the community were shocked this past May when two teenage boys used a cell phone to record an assault on a teacher. The teacher had suspended one of the boys for obscene language. The boy returned to school and set up a “camera shoot” in the hallway, where he and a buddy checked cell phone camera angles and then waited for the teacher’s last class to end.

 When the woman walked into the hallway, her suspended student blindsided her with a vicious punch while his buddy recorded the scene. The teacher ended up with 25 stitches in her head. Murphy High has a cell phone policy, but little good that did when students wanted to cause serious harm. Estle advises schools to have policies in place for internal disciplinary action—but also to forge strong relationships with the police and the district attorney. “The DA charged the young men as adults, and sent them to ‘big boy’ jail,” where they’re being held for $250,000 and $100,000 bail. “We’ll also do professional development in the fall about spotting potentially violent kids, and we’ll set up tip lines for students who might know something about a potential attack,” Estle notes. “But the bottom line is, the police made it clear that no one is to lay a hand on one of our teachers. They really supported us, and I think my teachers feel safer just knowing that.”

 Another ugly cell phone incident: Earlier this year, a teacher at Milwaukee’s Pulaski High School ducked out of the classroom for just a few moments and left her ninth-grade students unattended, at which point a scuffle broke out. Not long afterwards, 52 seconds of this “eyewitness” school news ended up on YouTube. Although no one was hurt, it was “a very serious issue,” says Ada Rivera, the school’s principal. But her school faces bigger problems than YouTube coverage. “Our issue is not pictures,” Rivera says. “Our issue is kids calling in parents, friends, and others to do physical harm to people in the building. That’s the real reason we have our cell phone policies.” So, for instance, a fight such as this one, caught on a cell phone and sent to a buddy outside the school, is likely to lead to further violence. Rivera says that even before the YouTube incident, the superintendent had made a district-wide call to parents reiterating the no–cell phones policy.

The Filter Factor

In October 2004, a substitute teacher in Norwich (CT) Public Schools exposed some of the middle school students in her care to pornographic pop-up ads. Julie Amero was tried and convicted and faced the possibility of 40 years in jail. She has since been granted a new trial, which will decide her fate.

 Despite the incident, the district hasn’t made any radical changes in what it does to keep kids porn-free, according to Bob Hartz, manager of Information Services. “There are so many porn sites,” he says. “You’ve just got to assume it’s going to happen, pay attention, and take the right steps when it does.”

 Hartz claims the easiest, no-brainer action—even for a complete novice to the computer, which Amero has claimed that she was at the time—is to cover or turn off the monitor. Hartz says that since the incident, he’s advised all of his teachers to get kids away and immediately report what has occurred.

 Meanwhile, the district has slowly implemented changes that have helped lower the potential for students to access porn. For instance, Norwich now uses the state’s free content filtering service, Connecticut Education Network. Hartz has also switched to N2H2 for a filter, changed his firewall to Pix, and put a spam filter in place.

 But the truth of the matter, he argues, is that it’s still up to teachers not to panic. “We had a kid who typed ‘goggle’ instead of ‘Google’ the other day and turned up a questionable site,” he says. “The teacher moved the kid away and called her principal.”

Middle School Misconduct

Adolescent boys have been looking up girls’ dresses since skirts first rose above the ankles. But cell phones take sexual harassment one step further, as school administrators discovered at Shawnee Mission School District, in Kansas. School officials got a tip that a boy at Mission Valley Middle School had snapped pictures of two female students without their knowledge, and the police were brought in to investigate. “It became a law enforcement issue,” according to Gene R. Johnson, Ph.D., associate superintendent for Secondary Administrative Services. He says he can’t reveal exactly how the school handled the case, but that it was “dealt with as a very serious matter. It violated our acceptable use policy, [and] was a violation of privacy and Kansas statute.”

 The incident pushed the district to revamp its acceptable use policies, too. Johnson says that’s the easiest piece of the puzzle. The bigger lesson is that one slip in enforcing the policy can take it all crashing to the ground. In New York City, for instance, parents and kids were up in arms when the city ordered a roundup of cell phones in June—despite that everyone knew there was a ban. Johnson says looking the other way causes more trouble than adhering to policy. Of course, no school wants to be in the cell phone police business—there are more important things to be doing, as Johnson notes. “But we fail completely if there’s a policy and we look the other way.”

Whose Space Is It Anyway?

The MySpace page of a middle school gym teacher in St. Augustine, Florida, is now the subject of litigation for the St. John’s School District. According to Margie Davidson, director of communications, the teacher’s site wasn’t pornographic or libelous, but it was inappropriate. “St. John’s has no prohibition against personal MySpace pages,” says Davidson, “but teachers and students must all sign an acceptable use policy (AUP) and adhere to it.” The district wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the case because it’s currently in litigation, but reports are that some of the written materials and a photo violated what might be called “community standards.”

 Davidson acknowledged that these so-called standards might be open for interpretation. However, she says the AUP is reviewed yearly by staff members, and at 16 pages long, with minute details such as whether or not it’s allowable to identify other school employees on a personal page, the policy should be enough. And for now, it is.

 According to Davidson, the school is not planning on doing anything separate to ensure that these kinds of cases are not repeated. “We think the AUP is clear,” she says.

MP3 Cheats

Everybody loves an open-book exam, especially those who forgot to study. Used to be such exams were at the teacher’s discretion, but technology is changing all that. Which is what a teacher at Mountain View High School, in Meridian, Idaho, discovered upon overhearing students discussing how iPods could help them cheat.

 The idea is this: Kids record material that will be on an exam and then download it to bring to school on an MP3 player. So why let the MP3 players in the exam room? “We wanted to be the cool guys and allow kids to relax a little while taking tests by listening to their iPods,” Principal Aaron Maybon explains. “We’re an SPED and ELL magnet school, and listening to quiet music while taking an exam is a good way for our students to stay focused.” But even if MP3 players are banned outright, Maybon says, the kids can tell you exactly how to hide the tiny players, cords, and earbuds under bulky clothes and underneath their hair. Still, Maybon points out that there has never been an incident of iPod cheating at Mountain View. He also has no intention of banning MP3 players and punishing kids for behavior they haven’t exhibited, though he did feel it was important to be proactive and warn teachers to keep an eye out. The policy stays the same: Cell phones are banned on campus because of concerns about theft, and cheating—by any means—results in a zero.

What Next?

Richardson says that managing these sorts of events in 21st-century classrooms isn’t going to get easier any time soon. He says technology is getting smaller and smaller—and easier to carry as well as to hide. Plus, we’re about to enter an age of ubiquitous computing, where kids will be able to snag a Wi-Fi signal from the surrounding community and simply get around whatever blocks or bans school administrators have made. Can you imagine the insanity that will ensue when kids can search the Internet unchecked on a school computer—linked to an unfiltered Wi-Fi connection?

 The good news is that of all the people in the world, educators are best able to solve these problems. Technology is only the tool for bad behavior, and teachers have been teaching right from wrong since the days of Plato. Educators are also brilliant at holding children accountable—more so, at times, than parents are. To Richardson’s eye, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and stop thinking about policies that limit technology, and instead focus on what we do best. “It has to be a K–12 curriculum in which we model good behavior,” Richardson argues. “We have to be consistent in our own behavior, and hand out real consequences for abuses to the procedures.” In other words, be ready to do battle. @

About the Author

Pamela Wheaton Shorr is editor of The Heller Reports' Educational Sales and Marketing Insider, and is a frequent contributor to Scholastic Administr@tor.

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