Will Withholding Funds Make Internet Safety Education Happen in Schools?

Posted on 03. Nov, 2010 by in For Parents, For Teachers

By Lynette T. Owens

Just over a year ago, I had the good fortune to meet with the IT director of our local school district, a district which includes about 5, 000 students attending 5 elementary schools, 2 middle schools, and 1 high school.  During the meeting, we discussed the issue of CIPA, the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which requires K-12 schools in the U.S. who receive discounted rates for Internet access through a program known as E-rate to block Internet content that is age-inappropriate for students, and to block access to child pornography for all students and staff.  CIPA also stipulates that Internet safety policies are put in place to ensure that students, faculty and administration are not mis-using or abusing Internet access provided by the school. 

In principle, this requirement seems relevant and appropriate, and the U.S. is not the only country doing this type of thing.  The problem is that compliance with CIPA is not enforced.  At least that is what the IT director told me and what I’ve heard anecdotally from people responsible for IT in education.  Unless a school has gotten into trouble in some very public way (outraged parents storm on the school about their kids accessing porn in the computer labs, cyberbullying happening rampantly, etc.) there is no way of knowing if schools are compliant with CIPA.

So when an article in PC Magazine last week highlighted the FCC’s intent on expanding the requirements of CIPA to include Internet safety education, the same thoughts crossed my mind:  Good in principle, but how will this look in practice?

Schools will certainly take note where their budgets are involved.  But the issue here is that the E-rate program is mainly the responsibility of the IT department.   Once they have applied for discounted Internet access, they need to implement it in the school.  They acquire equipment, setup a network, secure that network, and support hundreds and thousands of people who will use it.  They are additionally responsible for CIPA compliance, which is by and large solved by technology (mostly filtering or blocking Internet content).  They are also the authors or heavily involved in what is known as the Acceptable Use Policy (AUP), which is usually 1-2 pages stating that anyone using school technology will do so appropriately and is signed by students and staff.

But to now add Internet safety education on issues like cyberbullying and sexting to their list seems a bit vague and out of scope for a group that is already overloaded, understaffed, and under-resourced.  I realize that the additional FCC requirement does not necessarily say it is the IT department’s responsibility, but as I’ve asked before “who is responsible for the Internet safety education of our kids?” 

The FCC move would help to more closely tie groups that are today loosely tied on the issue of Internet safety in schools.  But like with current CIPA requirements, without enforcement and without some guidance on how schools can meet this new requirement, the intended result may or may not come to be.

Internet safety education should be happening in schools, but it is still a shared responsibility between parents and schools, with the earliest exposure to it happening in the home.  As kids age, continued enforcement of appropriate Internet use should happen at home and school.  School IT departments should be left to employ whatever technologies can support the safest environments for kids to access the Internet in schools, including what, when, and where they can access it.   And governments should continue to encourage the safe use of technology in schools, provided they can stand behind it as more than an empty threat.

No schools want to be known as a place where online bullying is rampant and unchecked, where kids are bypassing internet filters and surfing pornography, or where students’ personal information is at risk of being stolen because of the click-happy behaviors of students and staff. 

Internet safety education in schools will ideally address not only how to behave towards others online (cyberbullying), but how to prevent all online risks including how to keep cybercriminals at bay (e.g., unsecure websites or dodgy privacy policies) and where the legal boundaries are for various online behaviors (e.g. plagiarism, sexting).

For some great FREE resources for Internet safety education in the schools go to:

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