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Privacy issues prompt revisions to proposed changes to schools' Internet policy

Updated 1:14 pm, Monday, January 21, 2013
  • The Board of Education is reviewing new changes to the schools' Internet policy after revisions proposed last year were dropped after concerns were raised that the rules posed a violation of privacy rights.  FAIRFIELD CITIZEN, CT 1/21/13 Photo: Contributed Photo / Fairfield Citizen contributed
    The Board of Education is reviewing new changes to the schools' Internet policy after revisions proposed last year were dropped after concerns were raised that the rules posed a violation of privacy rights. FAIRFIELD CITIZEN, CT 1/21/13 Photo: Contributed Photo

 

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Revisions proposed for Fairfield public schools' student Internet use policy are under review after initial changes proposed last September drew complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Board of Education withdrew the modified policy in early October after officials at the civil-liberties group's Connecticut chapter sent a letter to the board objecting to the revision 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 school district resources and students should have no expectation of privacy.

The language, drafted by the board's Policy Committee as part of the revisions brought before the board on Sept. 11, read: "Digital storage and electronic devices used for school purposes, whether district or personally owned, will be treated as district technology resources. Therefore, all students must be aware that they should not have any expectation of personal privacy in the use of these resources."

David McGuire, the ACLU state chapter's staff lawyer, wrote in a letter that the amendment will "lead to violations of privacy rights" guarded by the Fourth Amendment.

In the latest revision, the committee, made up of board members Paul Fattibene and John Convertito, both lawyers, and Jennifer Maxon Kennelly, removed that language.

Revisions in the initial changes were reviewed by the Board of Education at its meeting last week.

Kennelly said "substantial changes" have been made to the initial policy revisions prompted by the ACLU's concerns. In particular, district technology resources have been "clearly separated" from personal devices, she said.

"They are not viewed interchangeably, but there are in fact differences there," said Kennelly, a high school English teacher.

In addition, "District Technology Resources" were defined in the latest changes to include Internet access and a broad array of "district owned, operated, managed or offered" electronic devices. The revised policy also defines "Personal Electronic Devices" to include cellphones, smartphones, tablets, computers and smart sticks, among other items.

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.

Changes to the school district's original Internet 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.

Board member Perry Liu said he was concerned with the policy stating the school may search a student's personal electronic device "in a manner and to an extent that is consistent with, and limited to, the initial basis for the reasonable suspicion" to determine whether school, state or federal regulations have been violated.

"This is still the same problem that I think is what the ACLU was talking about and I too feel this is just overreaching," he said. "I don't have a problem confiscating if there's suspicion of someone doing wrong, but then to go into someone's personal device, I don't think that's a school's place."

Kennelly said existing school practices allow students' backpacks to be searched, given reasonable suspicion as to its contents, and students and parents will be made aware that personal electronic devices may also be searched under the same circumstances, as well, if the policy is approved.

"No one is looking for a gotcha moment out of this," she said.

Liu also said a student's phone could previously have been used by a parent and have a parent's personal information.

Board member Tim Kery said school administrators should have the ability to search a student's personal electronic device if there is reasonable suspicion because they have the capacity to "wreak very costly havoc" on school resources and information.

Board member Sue Brand suggested that parents be involved when school personnel find the need to search a student's personal electronic device.

Liu said Brand's suggestion may create a "middle ground" concerning students' 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 Deputy Superintendent of Schools Karen Parks. 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, she said.

The policies are slated for a vote at the school board's next regular meeting on Jan. 29.

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

Later in the meeting, Kennelly brought up proposed elimination of another policy concerning student Internet use as it was considered redundant to the revised policy as well as proposed minor additions to a policy concerning electronic monitoring.