Editorial / School computer rules would delete civil rights
Published 7:17 pm, Thursday, September 27, 2012
The public schools have long had policies governing Internet use in the schools and the use of school computers. They have not only the right but the responsibility to protect students from exposure to harmful, inappropriate or explicit Internet materials at school.
The schools also have the right and responsibility to prohibit the use of school equipment to electronically harass or intimidate anyone.
But in its stampede to secure federal money to protect students from both pornography and each other, the Fairfield Board of Education seems to have given little if any thought to the civil rights of students and their parents.
Proposed revisions to the schools' Internet policy would include not only school equipment and networks, but personally owned equipment, too. The plan is so broad it raises alarming questions about rights of privacy, free speech -- even freedom of religion.
To continue to qualify for the federal money it uses to guard against misuse of the Internet in schools, the Fairfield board -- like others around the state -- set about revising its policy to reflect the new federal Child Internet Protection Act.
But in doing so, a subcommittee that drafted the revision has gone overboard. The revision states that personally owned equipment used for school purposes "will be treated as district technology resources."
Moreover, the policy states, students "should not have any expectation of personal privacy in the use of these resources."
Perhaps the board's aim was to crack down on middle school kids who text taunts to classmates during lunch or teens who view porn on their smartphones in study hall. And well they should, within the law.
But under the policy, it seems the home computer in your den -- the one that holds your tax returns and your confidential medical information -- would be considered part of the school district's "technology resources" if your child uses it for school work.
The proposed policy has caught the eye of the American Civil Liberties Union, which plans to review it.
But even before that review, the electronic policy seems at odds with an old paper document called the Bill of Rights.
Where might the policy and the Constitution clash?
First Amendment: Freedom of speech. Because Johnny uses his personal laptop for school work, can the schools prohibit its use after school hours to send a private email that the principal might think is inappropriate, but Johnny's parents asked him to send?
Fourth amendment: Right against unreasonable searches and right to privacy. If the principal suspects Johnny used his personal laptop to send that "inappropriate" email, would the principal have probable cause to search or seize it?
Fifth Amendment: The right to due process and right to compensation for private property. Does Johnny get due process in defending the use of his laptop? If the laptop is declared a "district technology resource," does Johnny get compensation from the schools?
During the school board's discussion of the policy revision this month, one member asked why it prohibits the use of computers for religious lobbying. The short explanation he got was that the language came from federal guidelines.
The more informed answer might have been that the First Amendment establishes the separation of church and state, so it would be improper to use publicly owned computers to promote religious beliefs or solicit contributions to a religious cause.
But by lumping privately owned devices in with the public ones, the Fairfield board seems to be telling Johnny he can't use his personal laptop to solicit donations for his synagogue's youth group because he used it to write an essay for his history class.
Wouldn't that violate Johnny's First Amendment right to freedom of religion?
In these economic times, local schools need every penny of federal money they can get. And if eligibility means updating the policy to account for new federal law, let's do it. But the federal government surely did not intend for local school boards to put footprints on the Bill of Rights.
The revision needs revision. Before enacting something that may not stand up to a legal challenge, the board would be wise to have legal counsel review it.
Plus, it would allow the school board and administration time for a civics lesson.