School District Policy Analysis: Internet Access
©1999 Kirk Messick

edited 4/26/12

Rose Tree Media School District has developed an Acceptable Use Policy for its computer network and Internet access. The Acceptable Use Policy is a district-wide strategy to try to insure responsible use of the Internet and network. The policy is directed towards all district employees and K-12 students. District employees, parents, and students are required to sign forms attesting they understand the policy and the parents are responsible for the actions of their children.

The school district has taken the precaution to try to restrict access to controversial material on the Internet and improper use of the Internet. The school board believes that the valuable information and interaction available on the Internet "far outweighs the possibility that users may procure material that is not consistent with the educational goals of the district."

Most people (teachers, parents, students, and staff) view this as only an Internet policy. The Internet is only a portion of the policy. The policy also covers responsible use of the district network. The consequences can range from loss of computer privileges to criminal charges for illegal activities.

The costs of the policy are:

  1. Printing, distributing, and collecting the three forms
  2. Managing and archiving the signed forms
  3. Monitoring that students/employees using the network have valid paperwork
  4. Loss of trust from the students and employees because network use is monitored periodically
  5. Punishment to offenders - Loss of computer privileges or worse
  6. The time it takes to go through the discipline process for student and employee offenders
  7. Additional responsibility for staff to monitor student use
The benefits of this policy are:
  1. Safer computing environment for students and employees
  2. Helps insure responsible use of the network and Internet
  3. Community is aware of the policy to keep district computer use focused on school business or learning
  4. Since it is a board policy, it is easier to enforce because it defines improper use and states the consequences
  5. The policy may help the district legally if there is an illegal or unethical use of the network by an employee or student
  6. The need for such a policy means everyone will benefit from access to information the network and the Internet provides
Is the policy effective? It is difficult to assess the effectiveness of this policy because the policy is still less than one year old, and it has not been fully implemented at all grade levels. It is critical for the district to have a network/Internet policy in place to be proactive and head-off future conflicts or challenges. The policy is currently being distributed to the final group in the district, grades K-3. To gain any assessment of the effectiveness, we need to look to the secondary level.

Besides district employees, secondary students have been using the network the longest. They have been using the computer network and accessing the Internet for almost one year. During this time, there have been cases of students hacking into the system and disrupting the network, doing pranks (bugs), and misuse of the Internet. The number of students participating in this type of behavior is low. The district has been successful in catching many of the students misusing the system. It is difficult to determine if the policy has kept the number of instances lower than if the district did not have a formal policy in place. I believe the threat of losing computer privileges has been a deterrent in reducing the number of instances of improper use.

Is the policy efficient? Once the initial roll out costs (printing, distributing, collecting, and filing forms) are incurred, most of the costs of this policy will be put on the shoulders of district employees. The school staff that work in areas (classrooms, libraries, computer labs) that have computers will given the additional responsibility to monitor student usage of the computers. This is not to say the staff did not monitor students before. The change is what the network provides. Students have more access to software, hardware, and the Internet, which can allow more opportunities to misuse the network.

The monetary start up costs of implementing this policy are clear. The ongoing costs the policy creates are more difficult to measure. There will be a cost to the staff and administrators to monitor usage into the daily routine of the employee. This additional responsibility could cause other responsibilities to be affected, since there is only so much one can do.

Is the policy equitable? It may depend on whose perspective one is viewing the policy to determine if it is equitable. The school board's and top administrator's perspective is the policy is a necessity and it is good for the learning environment. The staff that feels the real costs and benefits created by the policy may have mixed feelings. Most staff members do not need another layer of responsibilities added to their load. But, staff members should recognize they gain from the technology that is in place that caused this policy to be written. I believe any additional costs incurred by this policy are offset by the benefits the staff gain from access to technology in the district.

Is the policy participatory? This policy was developed with little input from the district staff. The person most responsible for writing the policy was the Director of Technology. He gathered similar policies from districts around the country and developed a policy that best fit our needs. The draft of the policy was circulated to administrators and technology coordinators for review. After the school district's solicitor reviewed the final drafts, the school board approved the policy. The whole process took three months.

Is the goal of the policy clear? The goal is not clearly stated in the policy. It took a cover letter from the Director of Curriculum and Instruction to clearly explain the purpose of the policy to the parents and students. The staff was given a presentation which allowed people to ask questions. The policy is too wordy and the purpose of the policy is easily lost. Below is a portion of "Section I - Purpose" from the Acceptable Use Policy.

The use of the School District's network facilities shall be consistent with

and used to support the School District's curriculum adopted by the School Board as well as the varied instructional needs, learning styles, ability and development levels of students and support services. In addition, use of these facilities shall be to support communications and research for teachers, administrators, and support staff.

The target population for the policy is large. It is all district employees and K-12 students, approximately 4600 people. Anyone using the computer network for district business or learning must understand the Acceptable Use Policy and sign off on it. This is quite a variety of users that have many applications for the network and the Internet.

The policy does not address who enforces the policy. It is natural to assume the staff members are charged with policing the student use. Since the district has not given any instruction on what to do if a student violates the policy, it is a wait-and-see mentality and we will learn as cases come up. This policy is interesting since it also assumes employees will police themselves. The policy has the potential to put fellow employees in very difficult situations if they see violations. This could lead to interesting teacher association cases if members are "tattling" on other members. I understand the importance of this policy, but I am not sure how diligent the district expects everyone to be to enforce the policy. It is unclear what everyone's role or responsibility is in enforcing this policy.

What are the rules, tools, and assumptions in this policy? The rules address who is responsible to perform what actions. Section IV of the Acceptable Use Policy looks at responsibility. This section states the School District will make every effort to "insure the network facilities are used responsibility by students, employees, and community users." (The community will have access to the network in the future.) The policy also states administrators, teachers, and support staff have "a professional responsibility to insure proper student use of the network and the Internet." The last responsibility point the policy makes is, everyone has the "responsibility to respect and protect the rights of every other user." The responsibilities and actions are open to interpretation.

One tool that motivated the implementation of the policy is to legally protect the district from inappropriate or unethical use of the district network. The district wanted all users to understand their responsibility and the consequences if they misused the network. The administrator's motivation was to have a policy in place to help discipline any misuse. The policy gives the administrators a document of prohibited uses and consequences for inappropriate use.

This policy was not a reaction to a "cue" that occurred in the district. The "cue" was from talking to school districts that have technology in place and reading about nightmare stories about student misuse of technology in the schools. The Acceptable Use Policy is meant to be a proactive measure to minimize inappropriate use by making all users aware of the consequences. The district is "concerned" inappropriate behavior may develop without a policy. Hopefully, this policy will give the district the "control" it needs to fully implement its technology plan and provide information access to all employees and K-12 students.

Is what the district wants to achieve worth the costs? Yes. The district wants its students and employees access to information via its computer network. The costs associated with the policy to insure proper use of the network and the Internet are minimal compared to the increased benefits of access to information on the network. Employees will have to except additional responsibility of policing users in return for access to technology and information.