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Easy access to pornography is the most highly visible risk associated with providing Internet access to children. Most administrators and teachers underestimate the availability of on-line pornography.
With electronic access, a single mouse click can bring a student to a hard core pornographic site. It is not unusual for curious students in a 4th or 5th grade class to explore the seedier side of the Internet with URL’s from Playboy.com to the more hardcore sites proliferating the on-line landscape.
Not all access to pornographic material is intentional. Banner ads for pornographic material can appear on legitimate WWW sites. Students can unknowingly enter Internet addresses (URL’s) with the best of intentions and arrive at an inappropriate site. If a student were to enter whitehouse.com to reach the legitimate White House home page they would be surprised to find that they would be connected to an inappropriate, non-White House site. The real White House site address is www.whitehouse.gov.
The difference between typing .com versus .gov is a common mistake that anyone could make. The results of the mistake can be troubling.
Even innocent searches for school topics that one would suspect would be safe from worries about pornography can be harrowing experiences. Recently, a fifth grader searching for information on “ladybugs” for a report generated a list
of potential sources from an Internet search engine. The list included LadyBug Massage Parlor, Ladybug XXX site, and more. Only adult supervision prevented the innocent 5th grader from connecting to sites, which would
have been emotionally disturbing to her and her parents.
Schools that rely strictly on the honor system to discourage students from accessing inappropriate material overlook how easy it is to access these materials inadvertently. The situation on the Internet is similar to having thousands of pornographic books and magazines mixed in with a libraries shelf collection and assuming that students will not come across these materials when doing their research.
Teacher Assigned Material
Teachers should assign Internet materials that are relevant in terms of age and course objectives. Teachers should always thoroughly preview all assigned sites. Objectionable material may not appear on the primary web page but on a secondary page which is linked to the one assigned by the teacher.
A Christmas web page seemed harmless enough until one clicked on a link to Uncle Bob’s Christmas page, which contained Uncle Bob’s Christmas Joke of the Day. The joke was not suitable for children.
2. Inappropriate Access
Many schools have been lax in their supervision of the use of the Internet. Two real life illustrations bring home the extent of the problem. A school’s network performance, especially their Internet performance, was dropping off during the middle part of each day. Network engineers were summoned to track down and diagnose the problem.
After several days of tracking network and Internet traffic during the peak usage periods it was revealed that students and teachers alike were finding unused computers during their lunch hours and logging on to Soap Opera sites. The sheer volume of traffic involved in downloading audio clips, photos, etc. was bringing
the network to its knees.
Rather than a technical problem the school had a “policy” and “practice” problem. Although the district’s Acceptable Use Policy was clear that the Internet was to be used for curriculum purposes only, the daily practice proved otherwise. When policy and practice are not aligned schools increase their risk of litigation.
Likewise, the school that called because their network file server was failing and disrupting daily technology activities throughout the school was surprised to learn that the server was filled with games downloaded by students from the Internet. Even more surprising was the acquiescence of the computer teacher who thought that it was acceptable for the students to be playing /Doom and Duke Nukem, two violent computer games, during the last 5-10 minutes of his computer class.
Violations of Personal Safety
Students who innocently reveal information about themselves on the Internet increase the risk of inappropriate contact with individuals and companies that may not have the best of intentions. Many schools have published student work to the Internet, which includes student photos and names. This practice is dangerous because the reach of the Internet is far beyond the community in which the school exists. What can be innocent descriptions of a student’s hobby, place of work, and favorite foods may read like a personal ad to a sexual predator hunting his prey on the Internet.
Instructions on breaking into computer systems, child pornography, drug dealing, alcohol purchase
Damaging the Network
Students hack into school computer systems and “Smurf” the file server. “Smurfing” ties the network file server in knots and causes the network to run slowly. Students load viruses on the network, corrupt hard drives with special
config files, and get access to unauthorized computer directories. In some instances students send “e-mail bombs” which when opened spread destructive viruses to the hard drive of the recipient. Students have been known to reprogram boot files so that when the computer is started it boots to the web page of a hard core porno site.
Many schools have taken computer vandalism lightly, partly because there is an aura of “intelligence” and “coolness” involved in having the skill to break into a computer system, and partly because the types of kids involved in computer vandalism are generally not the kids involved in the acts of physical vandalism.
The true costs of electronic vandalism are beginning to be recognized by schools throughout the country. In one recent case, it cost a district close to $30,000 to recover from the viruses and other electronic vandalism done by one of its students. It is important to treat these incidents of electronic vandalism seriously.
One of the most troubling new phenomena are students who, armed with teacher, administrative, or another student’s ID and password roam the Internet with impunity impersonating their teachers as they send prank e-mails, subscribe to listservs, and other harmful activities such as the unauthorized browsing of the private files of others.
One interesting technique to steal these ID’s and passwords is to create a screen capture of the teacher and administrator login screens and when the unknowing victims try to log in they have their user id’s and passwords sent to a special directory created by the vandal.
Unfortunately, it is more common to have teachers and students innocently and voluntarily reveal their ID’s and passwords to others.
One of the most serious areas of liability that gets the least amount of attention is the harassment of others via electronic mail. Students send threatening electronic mail to the President of the United States thinking it’s a joke. It is no joke to the Secret Service who follow up on site with each student, their parents, and the school superintendent hours after each incident. Many schools have punished students who have initiated such incidents severely.
There are also many troubling cases of students sending inappropriate and hurtful e-mails to each other. In some cases older children have harassed their younger counterparts, in others boys have sexually harassed female classmates.
Bathroom Walls Incidents
In the “old days”, writing on a bathroom wall, “For a good time call…” was a minor nuisance. Students with Internet access can now post personal information about other students to bulletin boards, chat rooms, listservs and other
entities across the Internet. Literally, millions of people may see the information.
Imagine a 12 year old student in your school receiving hundreds of harassing e-mails, some with inappropriate pictures attached, or phone calls to the student’s home from strangers. The disruption in a family’s life would be tremendous.
Obscene, profane, vulgar, threatening speech. Harassment, personal attacks, prejudicial, discriminatory, defamatory and dangerous information (If acted upon could cause damage) can cause great harm.
Generally, if a school does not know that one of its students or employees is using the school network to libel another party it can not be held liable. However, if the school is aware of the use of its resources to libel another and does nothing it can be held liable.
It is useful to remember that all conversation on the Internet is considered published material. It does not have the same privacy aspect as the telephone. Therefore comments in listservs and chat groups that appear to be private are not and can be the subject of litigation by someone who feels that he/she is being libeled.
All Internet material is copyrighted. Care should be taken not to reproduce software without following all licensing procedures. Schools should have clear policies regarding the copying of software that is strictly enforced. In addition, care should be taken not to acquire other people’s work. One school newspaper was sued because it copied the logo of a college off its web page and used it for the paper’s logo.
6. Internet Risk Management
It is important to note that there is no one strategy that can limit the potential liability that the Internet poses. Without a multi-faceted approach most Internet risk management strategies are doomed to failure.
Many school leaders are lulled into a sense of security by the approval of an Acceptable Use Policy by the Board of Education and the signatures of parents on Internet policies and permission slips.
Neither of these important strategies will protect a district from litigation if it has done little else to limit the risks that students using electronic resources on-line face. If students are left unsupervised for long periods of time the school system may be held accountable. If there are incidents of on-line harassment or discrimination of which the staff is aware and chooses to overlook, a parental permission slip may be of little value. An Internet site assigned by a teacher that has inappropriate material directly on the site or on a directly linked site may be troublesome for a school district to defend.
Likewise, Internet site filtering software without a comprehensive risk management strategy is doomed to failure. Internet site filtering systems are not perfect and can be circumvented. More importantly, these systems monitor Internet abuses and not abuses of electronic mail. Electronic mail can be a serious source of risk.