Should you just pull the plug on your Internet connection? Or are there other ways to avoid the pitfalls of cyberspace? School board members and administrators are concerned about the potential liabilities--both political and legal--attached to internet access. The political pitfalls are obvious, and more than a few school people have spent sleepless nights worrying about students innocently or intentionally web-surfing into pornographic chat rooms and bulletin boards.
The legal implications are almost completely undefined. As in the early days of any new technology, lawyers and the courts have not caught up with all the possibilities. But courtroom-weary school lawyers know that for every potential plaintiff, there is an attorney waiting to file a lawsuit claiming damages due to careless management of student access to the internet. Like the leaves in autumn, the lawsuits are sure to descend. The real question isn't how to restrict access to the web--it's how to preclude non-frivolous, potentially expensive litigation over use of the web. Some of the burden of limiting access to unwanted on-line material on the web is being assumed by the providers of internet services, many of which have begun to build systems intended to enable parents and educators to control the material that comes into their homes and schools.
In recent years, software development companies have begun marketing software tools intended to enable parents and teachers to limit web access for children. Examples of such software include Cyber Patrol, CYBERsitter, The Internet Filter, Net Nanny, Parental Guidance, SurfWatch, Netscape Proxy Server, and WebTrack. Unfortunately, many of these tools block access to perfectly innocent material as well as the inappropriate information they're designed to block, but competition among these and other providers will undoubtedly lead to increasingly usable and useful software for controlling internet access. Of course, these "sanitizing" programs are neither perfected nor completely perfectible, but they can provide a first line of defense--especially for use with younger children. For older students, such as high schoolers, these tools might well be too restrictive, but many school systems will still prefer to err on the side of caution. The second line of defense, suitable for children of all ages, are computer cleaner programs such as the one on this site, which enable parents and teachers to check for and remove anything inappropriate that may have slipped past the filtering software.
Some school districts are taking another approach and adopting so-called "acceptable use" policies that establish extensive ground rules for use of the school computer system, covering both local network etiquette and Internet access. Most of the policies I've reviewed to date seem to have been written by lawyers or committees of lawyer-wannabes. Almost without exception, they read like field-trip permission slips on steroids--pumped up policies that, like the Communications Decency Act itself, try to cover all contingencies and inevitably fail.
Perhaps the biggest problem with these policies is the false sense of security they promote. Most "acceptable use" policies include forms that must be filled out by students and approved by parents for students not of a legal age. But most of the forms do a poor job of giving parents real notice of the types of material to which their kids could be exposed. One form states: "I recognize that it is impossible for the X School District to restrict access to all controversial materials, and I will not hold it responsible for materials acquired on the network."
This statement combines a dash of understatement with a dollop of wishful thinking. Policies laden with vague references to "unsuitable" or "controversial" internet material do an inadequate job of alerting parents to the wealth of images and information--both positive and negative--that can be found on the web. Just as important, catch-all disclaimers and broadly worded release-of-liability clauses are notoriously ineffective when tested in courts of law.
Most of the policies I've seen need a lot of work to reduce the amount of jargon and legalese they contain and to turn them into useful tools of preventive law. Often, a better approach is to provide parents with as much real notice as possible of how the internet is being used in instruction (perhaps through hands-on demonstrations); make clear to them the potential for misuse; and then have parents sign a simple form acknowledging that they have received and understand the notice.
Even the most finely crafted policy, though, is no substitute for ongoing and attentive supervision, especially with younger students. Letting kids surf any web wave they want is like holding varsity wrestling practice without floor mats, and it could lead to similar liabilities. You cannot simply treat the Internet as an extension of your school library without exercising some discretion as to what's available on-line, just as you would over what's available on the shelf. If your school district adopts no other policy on computer use by students, you should at least mandate that access to the web be as closely monitored as the use of the school swimming pool, chemistry lab, or machine shop. Being "interactive" with students, and not relying solely on software or other third-party screening mechanisms, is the best possible protection.