Big Brother wants to watch my 6-year old.
December 17, 2008 9:28 PM   Subscribe

My son’s elementary school Internet policy has some fairly objectionable provisions. How common are these terms, and can/should anything be done about it?

My son’s new elementary school has an “Acceptable Use and Internet Safety Policy” that must be signed by both the parent and the student. The policy purports to be “in accordance” with CIPA, the Children’s Internet Protection Act. However, the policy seems to go way beyond what’s required by CIPA.

Most objectionably, the policy states that students “should make available for inspection by an administrator or teacher upon request any messages or files sent or received at any Internet location.” As a parent, I understand why a school administrator might want the authority to snoop into a troublemaker’s personal email to track down threats of violence or disruption, etc. As a card-carrying member of the EFF, this policy offends me.

I know that if a private employer tried to enforce such a provision, there would be huge problems. I want to know how common similar hamfisted Internet usage policies are in schools. (And I realize that I’m getting extra points for absurdity since my kid is all of six years old.)

Finally, I will probably donate a copy of Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother” to the school library (even though my 6-year old is not old enough to “get” it yet). Besides that, I’d like to know what the Hive Mind has to say regarding ways to promote awareness of why policies like this one are problematic.
posted by QuantumMeruit to Computers & Internet (25 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Are you certain that "any Internet location" doesn't mean within the school?

"Internet location" seems like a strange turn of phrase to me, as if it's their internal term for Internet "stations" or something.

If that's what they mean, it's not offensive. If they mean from any computer on the internet (whether school, home, cafe, or whatever) then I'm with you that it's ridiculously extreme.
posted by rokusan at 9:34 PM on December 17, 2008

Assuming that the policy refers to internet locations within the school - every major employer I worked at has that policy. My last one even had a huge login popup that warned, in all caps, that there was NO EXPECTATION OF PRIVACY on company computers.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:39 PM on December 17, 2008

My daughter's elementary school had a provision that prevented her from viewing any non-educational sites, even when at home. Her teacher looked at me like I had twelve heads when I questioned it, and then asked for a correction in writing. I just wanted to cover her ass, as I couldn't possibly have any less faith in school bureaucrats and their tendency to abuse loopholes like that. "Zero tolerance" and all that, you know.

All I can say for your case is: be glad you're an EFF member. I would personally make as big of a stink as possible about it. What your kid does with your computer is absolutely none of the school's business.
posted by deadmessenger at 9:41 PM on December 17, 2008

Response by poster: rokusan and restless_nomad, in several places, the school's policy talks about the "____ network" (i.e., students shall not attempt to connect [various devices] to the ____ network". It also talks about restrictions on the use of "school-owned" computers.

I also note that the school policy purports to require the student to "adhere to guidelines each time the Internet is used at home and school."

Given this broad-based (over)reach, I'm quite confident that the policy goes far beyond the use of computers in the school. I interpret the "any Internet location" language I quoted in the question to allow, for example, "We received a tip that you're sending harrassing your peers via your personal email account. Show us the contents of your personal email account, now."

To be clear, I have no problem with the school filtering or monitoring its own network. I do object, however, to the school attempting to reach into private spheres without even a semblance of probable cause.

(And yes, I understand that the 4th amendment doesn't apply to school locker searches. I think this is different because the search of "any Internet location" goes far beyond school "property" or what's on school grounds.)
posted by QuantumMeruit at 9:57 PM on December 17, 2008

My son’s new elementary school has an “Acceptable Use and Internet Safety Policy” that must be signed by both the parent and the student.

They're asking a 6-year-old to sign an agreement? That's just crazy on the face of it.

There is no "must" about it. If this is a public school, they probably can't eliminate your child's right to an education because his parents won't sign an "Internet Safety Policy."
posted by grouse at 9:57 PM on December 17, 2008

any messages or files sent or received at any Internet location

Basically, this says that what your kid does on MySpace or Facebook is covered by school rules. There's an enormous amount of impersonal harassment and trash talk that goes on there among teenagers and very often it spills over into school. This has even happened in my once benighted community.

I don't know that I really have an opinion about it -- it's hamfisted, to be sure, but kids are not adults. There might be better ways to word or frame this in terms of the policy.
posted by dhartung at 10:01 PM on December 17, 2008

I'm pretty sure you know this, but CIPA has nothing to do with anything except making sure kids don't see porn. Literally it's about obscenity and that's about it. You could make a computer "CIPA compliant" by blocking images in the browser.

I work at a high school, there is a completely crazy Internet Use Policy that not only did *I* have to sign -- I teach computer classes in the evenings and a drop-in time in the afternoon, all for adults -- but every student is supposed to sign one before they can even touch a computer. The policy doesn't even make sense in a general sense [bans the use of email, for example, when one of my classes is "How to Use Email"] and I basically got the okay from my boss to sign it and then ignore it and that's what I've done.

My guess is that what the school is trying to do is to let the students know that

1. their usage is monitored in school (this is pretty normal for school, not great but not unexpected)
2. they should not try to mess with the school's network or other students from school OR home (less cool, but makes sense relative to what dhartung says, schools don't get the Internet and yet still want to try to be tough on harassment and bullying which are huge problems in schools and now largely internet-based)
3. there are laws that let them do this (but CIPA really isn't one of them, as a librarian who deals with CIPA all the time, I know this for a fact, it's about images and it's about obscenity, period)

If your son's school is anything like the school that I work at, there's an offsite IT group that makes some of the rules, an overworked teacher that makes some of the other rules and no one who understands how the internet really works and/or knows what the EFF is. If I were you I'd really try to use this as an example of how to talk sensibly about privacy and security and internet safety for kids, not just go stomping around with your EFF card and say the policy sucks (though it does) and that you're offended. You might actually want to talk to the librarian to see if they're on board with the policy, who knows, they may be equally fed up and might be an ally.

Either way I'd try to go into it being somewhat sensible, figure out what's going on and using your knowledge of what's what to help them

- give better information out about why they have the policies they do
- create better and more sensible policies that actually work and make sense unlike the current ones

Keep a long view, your kid may have to go to school with these teachers and other kids for a while so if there is a way to make it seem like you're awesome in responding to this appropriately as opposed to just aggrieved and annoyed like every other parent, you could really do some good works. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 10:24 PM on December 17, 2008 [4 favorites]

Ha! Bowing to jessamynwisdom on preview, and deleting the duplication-of-her-post elements of I've been writing, but keeping this part:

As deadmessenger mentions, the people who put the least thought into these policies are also the ones who are most amazed and disturbed that anybody would question them. Serious consequences can result from that amazement and the irrational stubbornness, even hysteria, that can meet a perceived troublemaker in this area. So you're always going to be balancing "promoting awareness" with the very real possibility of negative reactions and overreactions.

Is there someone at the EFF, actually, who could advise you re. how to approach the school in a positive way? They've undoubtedly encountered this kind of issue; I don't know on what scale they're interested in hearing about every unclear and overreaching usage agreement around (because there are countless such agreements out there), but you're already an EFF supporter and I think it could be worth finding out...
posted by kalapierson at 10:41 PM on December 17, 2008

Assuming that the policy refers to internet locations within the school

Why assume that? Seems like if they meant in the school they would have said so, and they wouldn't need parents to "make available" the material.

My guess is they're worried about cyber-bullying.
posted by delmoi at 12:52 AM on December 18, 2008

I would assume they do mean exactly what they say - they want to be able to make your child cough up access to anything posted on the internet outside the school too.

Specific examples we've encountered at our school - semi-anonymous bullying via hotmail, and posting illiterate rants about the school and individual teachers to facebook that were showing up fairly high on google for the school's name. In both cases, they were leant on by the usual discipline methods without any requirement in our terms of use that they do so. Our terms of use only apply to the school network, but are over-draconian and counterproductive anyway. But it does them a great big stick over students when they do get caught breaking the rules, usually banning them from the school internet for a few weeks or something.

You're correct though. forcing students to hand over personal email or social network site passwords or content is little different from expecting to be able to search a students home on demand. How many administrators would like to be able to do that though?
It's entirely up to you how much you want to argue this.

Personally, I'd cross out the objectional section(s), initial the changes, and sign that. If the school objects, they can bring it up. Or you could go and have a word with the headmaster etc, but I'm pretty certain they will look at you blankly - "but we need to protect the children! How can we protect them if we don't have power over every inch of their lives?".

Internet access policies are always vague and over-broad. Read your ISP contract sometime. Schools are invariably worse, as they're drafted by people who really don't 'get' how the internet works, and also by those used to having near total authority in school. If it's accessible from the school, then the school should have full power over it in their view.
posted by ArkhanJG at 2:00 AM on December 18, 2008

FWIW, though I sound like a whiny teen above, I actually run the school IT dept.
posted by ArkhanJG at 2:01 AM on December 18, 2008

Seconding the suggestion by ArkhanJG to cross-out the section(s) to which you object, sign it (photocopy it) and return it.
posted by aroberge at 3:59 AM on December 18, 2008

The world will end in a whimper not a bang. Incremental concessions to authority like this one are dangerous. The only difference between modern bullying and old-fashioned bullying is that it's trackable; that doesn't mean the school has the *right* to track it without, as someone upthread said, probable cause.

I would love to say don't sign it, but if you don't sign it, is your kid banned from computers at school? If so, this is just the school using the behavior they're concerned about-- bullying-- themselves. They'll be punishing the kid preemptively for something he hasn't done, and probably won't do. "Sign it and ignore it?" wthell, jess, that's just ceding to the fascist bastards, and furthermore exposing yourself-- if they get a beef with you later, they can use your signature on that piece of paper against you. This totally sucks.

posted by nax at 6:15 AM on December 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thirding to cross out the objectionable parts, initial, sign.
posted by desuetude at 6:25 AM on December 18, 2008

What happens if you just don't sign it at all?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:02 AM on December 18, 2008

Personally, I'd cross out the objectional section(s), initial the changes, and sign that.

I wouldn't do this--if I remember correctly (and it's been a long time since we were told this), crossing something out on a form you sign doesn't release you legally from being bound to it. If you have specific concerns, go into the school office and sit down with someone from the school to address your problems with the agreement. It's possible you're mistaken about the extent of the terms, it's possible they're willing to be flexible, it's possible nobody's ever said anything about it. You won't know unless you talk to them. Crossing things out and signing the form and turning it in without saying anything would seem incredibly passive-agressive to me, if I were in their situation.
posted by EarBucket at 7:08 AM on December 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Though I have to say, honestly, that this sounds not too unreasonable given that schools act in loco parentis.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:08 AM on December 18, 2008

nthing the cross out and sign.

their policy is probably meant to prevent kids from looking at porn and to prevent them from "cyber-bulling" other kids, both admirable things. but there are more effective ways to do this than making the kids "promise" they won't do it.

have them sign an agreement saying they won't look at porn or bully other kids (this last part should apply to in real life and in internet life; also, where the fuck was this type of protection when i was a kid?!?!). they really need to be specific about the stuff they don't want kids doing while using school computers/email/networks, and they also need to explain why these things are bad and why they shouldn't do it at home (even though they have no control over what kids do at home).
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:27 AM on December 18, 2008

When someone gives me an agreement to sign that I don't like, I mark it up. This is not being passive-aggressive, it is revising the terms of the agreement.
posted by adamrice at 9:01 AM on December 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd love to see the EFF get involved in this sort of thing. Not in your specific situation, of course, but in a general way. Perhaps they could compose a policy that addresses CIPA and schools' legitimate concerns over cyberbullying and the like but which actually shows an accompanying respect for individual liberties (insofar as a single document could do such a thing). If they published such a document it would empower individuals such as yourself to offer up an alternative to the draconian rubbish so typically generated by the knee-jerk no-nothings that generally end up writing these policies.
posted by carterk at 9:06 AM on December 18, 2008

It's fair for the school to police activity that happens on their computers. I worked in IT in a High School ages ago, and the kids were better at using the network than the teachers, with occasional hilarity, and occasional outages.

It's absurd, and deeply wrong, for the school to try to have any say about what your child does on any computer anywhere else. Bullying is unacceptable, and it's hard to manage, but privacy and free speech are sort of important.

I'd meet with the principal, and explain why it's a bad document, why your child should not be asked to sign. And ask what will happen if your family declines to sign it.
posted by theora55 at 9:52 AM on December 18, 2008

My experience is that the people in charge of the computers are often petty tyrants who are the least qualified to be in charge of the computers. At my high school most of the computers weren't even configured to print, while the 'computer teacher' just sat around playing Minesweeper.

And don't sign the form.
posted by dunkadunc at 10:28 AM on December 18, 2008

also: I once had an elementary-school sysadmin tell me gloatingly about how he used filtering software to track down a kid who googled "sex" on a school computer: The kid 'wasn't allowed near a computer for the rest of the year'.
The way the guy seemed to get off on punishing kids for looking up porn was only a little creepy. only.

But the point is, your child's school might well already have the blanket capability to monitor every message your kid sends over the internet, they just want you to sign the form to cover their asses in case they actually do something based on what your son writes.
posted by dunkadunc at 10:40 AM on December 18, 2008

When someone gives me an agreement to sign that I don't like, I mark it up. This is not being passive-aggressive, it is revising the terms of the agreement.

Without negotiating and coming to agreement on those terms with the other party, it is not a valid contract. Contracts aren't the agreement, they are representations of the agreement. So agreeing to one thing and then changing the terms without discussion certainly is passive-aggressive.

Look at it this way- what would you expect the school to do if a classmate began bullying your child via the Internet? Would it be OK with you if the kid got away with it because his parents didn't sign the contract? Or if they crossed out parts of the contract they didn't like?
posted by gjc at 5:49 PM on December 18, 2008

It seems strange to me that the school feels it needs a contract to allow them to monitor students' social networking sites for harassment. When I was in high school, about eight years ago, some students made up a website about how they were raising an army of traffic cones to attack the principal, and were arrested and given community service for, I believe, libel and harassment. Not that I necessarily agreed with how the "situation" was handled, but it seems like there are legal provisions already in place to protect individuals from, say, harassment, and it definitely seems to me that the school is overstepping its bounds here. I would take a stand and speak up to the authorities at the school about why you're not comfortable signing the form. It seems like taking a stand like this would be a good thing for your kid to see, rather than watching you cave.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:58 AM on December 20, 2008

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