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After school Internet policy changes flunk privacy test, revised rules OK'd

Updated 6:28 pm, Wednesday, January 30, 2013
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The Board of Education has approved changes to its student Internet policy made after initial changes proposed last September drew complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The panel on Tuesday night endorsed the new policy by a vote of 7-2, with board members Perry Liu and Sue Brand voting against it.

The school board withdrew the modified policy in early October after officials at the ACLU's Connecticut chapter sent a letter to the board objecting to the revision on privacy grounds after reading about it in a Fairfield Citizen report.

In particular, the ACLU took issue with new language declaring personally owned computers and electronic devices used for schoolwork would be considered "district technology resources" and students should have no expectation of privacy. David McGuire, the ACLU state chapter's staff lawyer, wrote in the letter that the amendment will "lead to violations of privacy rights" guarded by the Fourth Amendment.

Liu proposed a motion at Tuesday's meeting that the revised policy be sent back to the board's Policy Committee to take advantage of an offer from McGuire to help draft the policy to avoid constitutional issues.

"Why not get expertise from people who can help?" he said.

Brand supported Liu's motion, which failed by a vote of 2-7.

"I think intentions are good, but I don't think we're there yet," she said.

Board member Tim Kery, however, said the school board should consult its own legal counsel on such a matter instead of seeking help from a special-interest group.

In its latest revisions, the board's Policy Committee, which made the first revision in September, removed the language referring to personal devices as school resources and added wording that distinguished personal devices from school-owned equipment.

Latest changes to the original policy, approved in 2004, also state, among other things, that "District Technology Resources are subject to search at any time." It also says that faculty may confiscate a personal electronic device brought onto school property or connected to a district technology resource if "there is a reasonable suspicion" that it is being used in violation of the policy, district regulations or state or federal law.

The latest modifications almost completely replace the original three-paragraph policy by deleting the first two paragraphs and then adding nine new paragraphs and eight bulleted items.

During the board's Jan. 15 review of the most recent changes, Liu objected to school staff looking through students' personal devices, while Kery said a search should be allowed if there is reasonable suspicion because personal devices have the capacity to damage school resources.

Brand suggested that parents be involved when school personnel find the need to search a student's personal electronic device, to which Liu said doing so may create a "middle ground" concerning student rights and the district's concerns.

The committee proposed the initial revisions in response to changes in the state law regarding first-degree harassment in accordance with the Child Internet Protection Act, according to school officials. The changes, which also prohibited use of such devices to access inappropriate material, were needed for the school district to continue receiving federal "E-Rate" funding for Internet access.

The board also approved by unanimous vote elimination of another policy concerning student Internet use considered redundant to the revised policy and minor additions to a policy concerning electronic monitoring.

mjuliano@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 112; twitter.com/mjulianoadv