Keeping School Handbooks Up to Speed with the Internet

Article excerpt

One of this year s "must review" handbook topics is what role a school should take regarding student use of the Internet outside the school

Handbooks perform a variety of functions in schools. One very important function is that they create expectations for parents, students and school staff that rise to a standard of care-or even a duty-that must be followed. Failure to fulfill an expectation may constitute breach of a duty that leads to health or safety consequences and exposure to litigation. That is one reason why it is so important to review and revise handbooks at least annually and why they must be consulted throughout the school year. One of this year's "must review" handbook topics is what role a school-especially a high school-should take regarding student use of the Internet outside the school.

What standard of care to adopt for student use of the Internet outside of school is a difficult issue because schools need to reserve the right to discover and act upon student misuse within some contexts while also respecting student privacy and avoiding taking on the burdensome role of "Internet police." Like most difficult school issues, handbook language and practice require us to strike a balance between important, but sometimes competing, interests.

Reserve the Right to Act

I believe a school needs to reserve the right to review and act upon student postings on the Internet in important, but limited, situations. While schools generally do not seek consequences for student actions outside of school-that is still a parental job-there are some circumstances in which it would be appropriate. (A school could, for example, expel a student who murders someone, even if the murder takes place outside school hours and off campus.)

Posting on MySpace.com or the like is a relatively recent phenomenon, but holding students accountable for some actions outside of school is not. It would make sense, therefore, to use language regarding inappropriate use of the Internet outside of school that fits within the broader context of mission and legitimate school interests that serve as the philosophical underpinnings of the handbook itself.

What school interests are present in this particular area? Our handbook outlines these interests within our technology section:

Bishop Blanchet High School reserves the right to impose consequences for inappropriate behavior that takes place off campus and outside school hours. Thus, inappropriate use of technology (for example, on a home computer), may subject the student to consequences. Inappropriate use includes harassment, use of school name, remarks directed to or about teachers, offensive communications and safety threats.

This statement describes the kind of situations where school involvement is permitted but, of course, does not limit involvement to only the named situations. Handbook language needs to be specific, but also somewhat open- ended. For example, we use permissive language ("may") often and mandatory language ("shall") much less so. Some attorneys like to use the term "including, but not limited to. …