Common Sense For School Internet Safety Policies

from the less-irrational-fear,-more-education dept

We talk quite a bit here about the growing pains of various institutions when faced with upstarts like the internet and social media. The usual suspects like the recording industry and newpapers come to mind first, but one of our oldest institutions continues to painfully stumble its way into the future: the educational system.

The institution's deep-seated mistrust of the most used encyclopedia in the world is already well known. But as email has given way to texting and social networks have expanded past the confines of the schoolyard, those seeking to somehow control the seeming chaos have worked steadily to bang out reactionary policies and ever-tightening guidelines. Rather than temper their actions with some common sense or a bit of perspective, educators (and some parent groups) have often decided to deploy terrible “zero tolerance” policies or overly-broad “guidelines,” relying on a variety of tech-related boogiemen (online predators, cyberbullying, sexting, porn… um… Wikipedia vandals?) to keep questions to a minimum.

Fortunately, someone is actually attempting to inject some common sense into school internet safety policies, tackling many of the issues that seem to go hand-in-hand with attempting to provide analog guidance in a digital era. Via Bruce Schneier comes “26 Internet Safety Talking Points,” compiled by Scott McLeod at Dangerously Irrelevant.

McLeod, founder of the UCEA Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education (CASTLE), runs through the whole alphabet (and adds a few corollaries) detailing talking points he uses when discussing internet safety with principals and superintendents. The entire piece is definitely worth reading. Here's a few selections from McLeod's list.

First off, bad things will happen. But it's not the tool being used. It's the user.

C. Mobile phones, Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube, blogs, Wikispaces, Google, and whatever other technologies you’re blocking are not inherently evil. Stop demonizing them and focus on people’s behavior, not the tools, particularly when it comes to making policy.

In addition to school administrators, members of our government and various security agencies should be presented with a copy of this talking point.

F. You never can promise 100% safety. For instance, you never would promise a parent that her child would never, ever be in a fight at school. So quit trying to guarantee 100% safety when it comes to technology. Provide reasonable supervision, implement reasonable procedures and policies, and move on.

Another thing our government and its affiliated agencies do well: use fear to acquire and maintain control.

G. The ‘online predators will prey on your schoolchildren’ argument is a false bogeyman, a scare tactic that is fed to us by the media, politicians, law enforcement, and computer security vendors. The number of reported incidents in the news of this occurring is zero.

There's a lot of buck-passing and “our hands are tied” gestures made when these policies are questioned. Often, it's simply not true.

H. Federal laws do not require your draconian filtering. You can’t point the finger somewhere else. You have to own it yourself.

This should be obvious. You're educators, after all.

K. There’s a difference between a teachable moment and a punishable moment. Lean toward the former as much as possible.

What is the rationale behind policies like this? That if it's online, it's automatically inappropriate? It's such an obvious double standard and yet, it's deployed so often.

N. If you’re prohibiting teachers from being ‘friends’ with students online, are you also prohibiting them from being ‘friends’ with students in neighborhoods, at church, in volunteer organizations, at the mall, and in other non-school settings?


S. Unless you like losing lawsuits, remember that students and staff have speech and privacy rights, particularly off-campus. Remember that any dumb decision you make is Internet fodder and has a good chance of going viral online. Do you really want to be the next stupid administrator story on The Huffington Post?

The more you block, the more energy gets expended by attempts at circumvention. Wouldn't you rather focus this energy on something positive, rather than trying to extinguish every flame you see? 

Z. Educating is always, always more powerful than blocking.

This the correct way to “think about the children.” A list like this is a handy thing to keep close at hand for the inevitable moment when school adminstrators declare “something must be done. ” Tossing a little common sense cold water on heated, reactionary plans is always a good idea.

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Comments on “Common Sense For School Internet Safety Policies”

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AdamBv1 (profile) says:

E. Why are you penalizing the 95% for the 5%? You don?t do this in other areas of discipline at school. Even though you know some students will use their voices or bodies inappropriately in school, you don?t ban everyone from speaking or moving. You know some students may show up drunk to the prom, yet you don?t cancel the prom because of a few rule breakers. Instead, you assume that most students will act appropriately most of the time and then you enforce reasonable expectations and policies for the occasional few that don?t. To use a historical analogy, it?s the difference between DUI-style policies and flat-out Prohibition (which, if you recall, failed miserably). Just as you don?t put entire schools on lockdown every time there?s a fight in the cafeteria, you need to stop penalizing entire student bodies because of statistically-infrequent, worst-case scenarios.

F. You never can promise 100% safety. For instance, you never would promise a parent that her child would never, ever be in a fight at school. So quit trying to guarantee 100% safety when it comes to technology. Provide reasonable supervision, implement reasonable procedures and policies, and move on.

Seems to me these points extend to well beyond education and should be taught to Congress as well. If they understood that punishing the vast majority for the acts of a few was silly then they would not try to pass new gun regulations every time there is a shooting that makes the national news when 99.999999% of gun owners never do anything wrong with their firearms.

If they understood that 100% safety is impossible they might be less likely to take away our rights and abuse us with the TSA, constitution free zones, etc.

M. ?Walled garden? online environments prevent the occurrence of serendipitous learning connections with the outside world.

For some reason that reminds me of this article. I know Serendipity is a major part of how I find and learn about new things online. Few things are as great as finding some random thing you never knew about and wanting to know everything about it.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is touching a pretty sensitive subject. Does a business or school have the right to block FaceBook, Reddit, Twitter, Google+, etc from the computers on their network? I would say yes. This isn’t blocking them when they get home, or at a public access point, but at a single place that policy should dictate which sites are allowed on the schools computers. I’m not saying go burn the books, but the schools should be able to limit whatever they deem inappropriate. Have you ever used a hospital wireless connection? Last time, I couldn’t use without bypassing filters. I could only do so, because I owned the computer. If you think the policies are too strict, I would say take that up with the Administration and IT department. Basically my point is to have a discussion first before blatantly condemning the policy, and it just may change.

Anonymous Coward says:


Blocking SQL ports after SQL Slammer almost took out the internet was dumb in 2003: Wikipedia. Blocking after the Anonymous DDOS attack through twitter was dumb: Sophos If you have never worked as a network engineer, you probably have no idea of what you are talking about. Thus I repeat:

Basically my point is to have a discussion first before blatantly condemning the policy, and it just may change.

G Thompson (profile) says:


Yes a business has the right due to it being a private entity to do whatever it so wishes in the area of blocking, censorship, corporate culture decisions as long as it does not fall foul of discriminatory or other employment law related statutes.

A school on the other hand being a public entity has to abide by all laws, guarantees, mandates, and rights that the govt has to abide by unless they have dispensation from said laws/rules via appropriate authorities (judiciary or legislature)

A private school if it comes under control by curriculum setting govt entities etc also has to abide by stated rules/laws in the same way a private business has to come under employment discriminatory statutes/rules

A school has no authority to state what is or is not appropriate unless it is within the mandate of duty of care set down by govt of the day WHILST ON SCHOOL TIME and not in any other location, time or instance unless what it egregiously affects that duty of care the school owes to its other students, staff, self.

By your example you have also exactly stated the situation as well. The hospital has in place filters that cannot be bypased on their own controlled systems, but using your own personal (private) property you could bypass. That’s a pure duty of care and CYA (Cover Thyne Arse) liability issue and NOT about education or any other mandated requirement the hospital has by statute and norm a requirement to perform.

As for taking it up with Admin and IT departments.. The IT department works for the Admin side.. it is not their call and the Admin works for the School Boards/committees, who work for the govt (unless private and refer to caveat) and are bound by govt rules/statutes/rights as stated in my 2nd paragraph. They know these rules they create are overbroad, wrongful, and in some cases unlawful, and if they don’t they are incompetent and should be removed, so condemning the policies is correct thing to do since policies are by procedure supposed to have had due diligence performed before the setting of said policy. Seems that hasn’t been done so condemnation of that and policy and authors needs to occur always. Not doing this unethical and will result in more apathy the policy makers have towards the general public.

anon says:

I agree that draconian measures to censor the internet are both unreasonable and impossible to enforce. However the author makes a very dangerous and factually accurate statement:

“The ?online predators will prey on your schoolchildren? argument is a false bogeyman, a scare tactic that is fed to us by the media, politicians, law enforcement, and computer security vendors. The number of reported incidents in the news of this occurring is zero.”

Yes, there are actual incidents reported, and I have met people who were the victims of online predators as children. The results are not pretty. It does happen, and pretending it doesn’t only makes it more likely to occur. Much better to educate children about how to stay safe in the online world, just as we teach them how to stay safe elsewhere in their lives.

The fact that the author is so dangerously ignorant or willfully blind about this subject calls into question the rest of his arguments.

Scott McLeod (profile) says:

Re: Let me clarify

As the author of this list (and a school law professor), let me clarify. It’s not that there haven’t been any online predator incidents. It’s that there haven’t been any reported online predator incidents with kids at school. If you can find one, put the URL of the news story here. See also the work of danah boyd, the Berkman Center, etc.

Anonymous Coward says:


Actually according to SCOTUS it’s more of the opposite. See UNITED STATES V. AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSN., INC. Basically, if the school/library wants government funding, they must implement filtering. If an adult requests that the filtering is removed, it may be allowed and not effect the status of government grants. Since Congress put that big exception in the CIPA act, obviously the Administration and IT departments do have some sway as to what can and should be allowed. (INAL but do work in IT, and have helped out private schools with networking before.)

Wally (profile) says:

I asked my dad about this and it turns out that as a former educator of 33 years: He tells me a lot at least about Ohio. So based on the article and his inputs, I’ve drawn my own conclusions towards N and Z.

N: “It’s not the tools, it’s the people that use them,”
N is sort of a mixed bag. In the state of Ohio, as a teacher, it is forbidden to befriend any of your students on Facebook. As ridiculous as it sounds, it has been proven that the teacher would tend to favor those students that he or she had befriended on FaceBook. It’s also kind of pointless as well because if you actually are a good teacher, you don’t need Facebook to get your students to appreciate you. The last 3 years of his career, my dad won Mount Vernon City School District’s Teacher of the year award. He never used Facebook.

As for Z: It’s dead on. From personal experience I can tell you that the filters currently in use at almost all high schools (grades 9 through 12 in the US) that if you were doing a health class report about STD’s, all the medical diagrams were blocked. The filters tend to block out “pornography”. I actually had to fiddle with my own laptop’s registry to remove the blocking settings in IE 6.

As for cell phone use and texting during class, no matter how much people will argue against it, it still happens. It’s a sad thing when you have to ban a certain style of boots as a last resort so kids don’t hide their phones in them. I mean really, imagine you are lecturing 20 or so people and they’re all paying attention to you until you hear the vibrating sound. Having ADD I’m glad that I graduated before you saw someone do that…talk about distraction city.

Anonymous Coward says:


Here’s my point. Normally Reddit should be blocked at public schools. Or would you love the school to be sued and your taxes to go sky high because little Johnny was checking out /r/spaceclop, /r/transex, etc on the school’s computer? Now obviously during the Barack Obama AMA, I would lift the filter so that teachers can allow their kids to post questions, and read Obama’s answers. This isn’t Rocket Science or fear mongering, it’s common sense.

It’s not like I think kids shouldn’t friend their teachers on FB and use social networking, but that should be done at home. If there is bullying or harassment, we already have laws that cover those actions and the parents/teachers should take that up with law enforcement.

Wally (profile) says:


While I don’t mind pornography being filtered out in hospitals (sperm donation banks exempt) and schools, they do tend to over-filter things like medical diagrams and photographs of physical specimens in public entity school systems here in the US.

Since schools are public property or local gvt. property, they implicately have to abide by certain rules. In the US, you are not allowed in a stripper bar until your 18. Since the private establishment is publicly oriented towards those under that age, they have to keep the systems filtered. As I complained before though, they have a tendancy to over do it. By my graduation from grade school (K-12 in the US) in 2004, the school systems had blocked out Google’s image search.

Now this being said, I have more to say. Ohio has the most unpredictable weather in the United States. It’s the only place at times where you need to run the furnace at night, and the Air Conditoning during the day. Given this unpredictability, we have days off if it is nsafe to drive in snowy conditions. We call them snow days. Well, a few years back, some bozo in Ohio’s State Senate decided to suggest that we make up for the days we missed…..My dad’s school district did something unique to counter this. We set up a public VPN server in the school so that if we have a snow day, students could log in and get their lessons and answer questions in Forum format. It’s worked very very well 🙂

School Tech Girl says:

Re: Re:

Part of the problem is the web filtering tools. I struggle with trying to strike a balance between blocking the things the government and our students’ parents expect to be blocked, while not going to such an extreme that our students can’t research legitimate topics. We use a software package that relies upon the vendor’s classification of websites by topic, and it can be a very blunt tool.

Wally (profile) says:


One word, Money. Due to the false information given out about how The Ohio Teachers’ Union pays out pension plans in Ohio for retired teachers, people thought we were all forced to pay their union dues for them. This drive Ohio’s State Senate to pass a bill that took away state workers’ unions’ right to collective bargaining (for pay raises and insurance benefits). This means that the local governments could take away insurance and other benefits away and not let their employees have a say. It was later shot down in a petition to repeal the law which consisted of signatures by almost 2/3 of Ohio’s entire population.

In Ohio, state contractors and employers are exempt from the requirement to provide benefits and insurance policies. Employees of the state include teachers, firefighters, police officers, sheriffs’ deputies, state highway patrol, and first responder EMT’s. So the unions involved are there to not just provide pension and insurance benefits, but also to bargain for the salaries and tenured pay raises. By taking that away, you would have nothing to retire on.

To answer your question, abc gum, Voucher school systems teach what ever the Hell they want to teach as curriculum and generally do not hire teachers using a background check. The teachers are not required to have a Masters Degree in teaching and still get federal funding to educate. They stand to make more money without having any other school systems around.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:


Could this apply in other considerations as well? Ringing in late here, so I don’t know how many might notice, but I just saw a new rule applied in an NCCA football game that makes no sense in the light of this post.

There is no such thing as safe. There is only safer. There is no such thing as moral. There is only more or less moral. There is no such thing as perfect. There is only striving.

ServerMonkey says:

Points the public misses

As someone who is a Network Engineer for an actual ISD, there are several points here… Obviously i’m going to focus on the area’s I personally know best… Education.

First, to solve some of the problems above, modifications need to be made to regulations like C.I.P.A.(Child Internet Protection Act), which is tied to our funding. If we don’t play by their perceived rules (which are horribly vague and outdated), they strip not only our current funding, but all we have ever received for as far back as they can prove we were not following the rules. We are also tied to several other regulations that were not even directed at us (H.I.P.A.) directly, yet still unintentionally force us into difficult situations.

Second, what people forget about being in the education business is we, as educators, are forced into a lot of situations by the public. A lot of the punishments handed down are done so because the public demands we act against “issues”, yet also demand we don’t hurt kids feelings, single them out, or any of the other “horrible things” we can do to try and teach these kids right from wrong. When your institution is held directly responsible for the behavior of children, and you have no means of discipline aside from calling the child’s parents (who typically don’t care) and asking them to handle the situation…. Of COURSE broad sweeping security measures/rules will be put into place to cover the few. Our only other option is to hope the kids who are causing issues’ parents will actually care… which they won’t, or we wouldn’t be having said issues in the first place. **Steps politely off soap box**

Obviously i’m a bit passionate about the issues, but again, it is because I live in them.

Anonymous Coward says:

The best advice? Don’t drop kids off alone in the middle of a drug infested neighborhood full of crack dens, porn shops, child molesters, and scammers… monitor their online use, in the same manner that you would monitor them walking through the scummy part of town at midnight.

The internet is NOT kid friendly. It might look like it, but it isn’t. The friendly appearance is just some creepy with a virtual bag of candy wanting to lure kids in.

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