by Lynette T. Owens
This past July, on my way to meet with the IT Director of a local school district, I walked the halls of the high-school where his office was located. The building, like so many public schools, appeared structurally fatigued, bearing the signs and scars of decades of students passing through. Anyone who viewed it from the street would have been bothered by its condition and the fact that kids spent 7-8 hours a day in it, 10 months out of the year.
I had expected to react similarly when the IT Director and I sat down to discuss the school’s technology infrastructure. I assumed that whatever was in place would be a mixed bag of old and new systems and software of various brands, purchased in waves, whenever enough money could be freed up. I also assumed some kind of security software would be in place, but that it would be minimal.
What prompted me to schedule the meeting was an article in the Washington Post this past June, asserting that security technology – primarily those that prevent kids from accessing inappropriate sites – have failed in our schools. The writer argued that such filtering technology was ineffective as kids had figured out ways to bypass it in school, while teachers were prevented from accessing sites needed for teaching purposes in the classroom. I decided to find out how big of a problem this really was.
My assumptions going into the meeting were only partially right. The director had taken on the job 4 years ago and had made a number of changes – both in equipment and in policies for its use. Media labs were being put together for one of the elementary schools in the district, hundreds of teachers were armed with new laptops, wiring and cabling was cleaned up in the high-school, and air conditioning was added to the room where all the back-end infrastructure was housed.
We then discussed the issue of kids accessing inappropriate things online in the schools. He did not seem overly concerned and did not indicate there were any rampant problems. This was good to hear.
He did feel, however, they needed to ramp up education for teachers and kids about internet use and safety and security issues. He believed technology alone would not solve all problems he might face with regard to use and abuse of the Internet in schools. He also felt strongly that parents needed to be both educated and educating their kids about appropriate use of the Internet.
If our kids access the Internet at school, then the same rules apply for their safety as they do at home. But you are not there to supervise them. If you are a concerned parent that wants to be sure your kids are safe online while they are at school, and that their information being put online is secure from anyone but you, here are 5 things you can do immediately with your children’s schools:
1 – Engage the school administration. Ask your principal or superintendent what the overall safety and security polices are for keeping the kids’, teachers’ and school’s internet access safe and secure. Most schools have codes of conduct for technology use. How are teachers and kids trained on this? Make sure such policies and procedures are also communicated and available for parents to refer to.
2 – Understand what the disciplinary actions are when rules are broken. What happens if a teacher shows questionable Internet content in the classroom? How will your child’s school records be impacted if they access inappropriate content on a school computer? What if your child is bullied online by a group of kids? How is this handled?
3 – Know how your child’s personal information is kept secure. Many schools are now hosting and posting a lot of personal information about your child online – and making that accessible to you over the Internet. This creates lots of efficiencies for everyone, but a strong privacy and security policy and infrastructure should be in place to support it. Unlike previous generations, children today have so much personal information stored in digital form that parents need to be aware of where it is and how it’s protected.
4 – Discuss it with other parents. Bring the topic up at a future PTO/PTA meeting. Make sure other parents are educated and engaged in this discussion as well.
5 – Ask to be briefed regularly. Technologies change, new applications and uses for it evolve all the time. And where they can improve the education process, they should be used. How is the school assessing new technologies in the name of safety and security for your kids? Make this at least a yearly topic of discussion with your school administration and with parent organizations associated with the schools.
The schools that I have been in contact with are very open and eager to engage with concerned parents on the topic of Internet safety. And while they bear an enormous responsibility to ensure the safety of our kids while they are under their care, parents need to be actively aware and involved in their safety at all times. You may have done everything possible to keep them safe and secure online while they are home, but they are not home for much of their waking hours. This is a topic well worth a small investment of your time.