"IF ONE LIFE IS SAVED, then it's worth it."
That is the cliched argument frequently used to justify banning electronic communications, websites, and other forms of technology in schools. The common belief is that these prohibitions will prevent, among other things, the sexual assault of minors or suicides related to cyberbullying.
But that argument can be turned on its head and also applied to unfettered access. The "one life" saved could be that of the young student who reaches out through e-mail to a teacher for help when pondering suicide, or the child who is found via Facebook after a killer tornado. All of these issues--positive and negative--were stirred up late last year in Missouri when the state legislature attempted a contentious ban on social networking between students and teachers. The resulting dustup illustrated the true nature of online safety: It's complicated.
In 2001, the federal Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) tied funding for reduced-rate internet access for schools and libraries to a number of mandates. One was the implementation of a safety policy that would "address concerns about access to offensive content over the internet on school and library computers." There has been confusion over what exactly would qualify as "technology protection measures," but these policies were developed and implemented before the advent of nearly ubiquitous social media.
Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are certainly riding strong waves of popularity at the moment, and already they have caused significant changes in the ways and means by which students and adults communicate with one another. In response, some schools and communities are creating new policies and measures directly targeting its use--both in and out of school. That has some thought leaders in the field troubled.
"While social networking is the technology of the moment, it may not be the technology of the moment in two years or five years or a decade," says Keith R. Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). "If you're going to try to regulate or legislate a technology, you're going to have to constantly be updating that law."
Krueger recognizes that, in the heat of an emotional reaction to a child being harmed, it's difficult for policymakers to thoughtfully and methodically review rules. However, when circumstances allow cooler heads to prevail, he proposes all policymakers undertake a careful consideration of how to truly protect students while avoiding unintended consequences that can undermine educational goals.
"As long as there's been technology, the concern is, 'How are we protecting kids?'" Krueger says. "The typical way that we've approached that is that we use technology to filter or protect, create a technology bubble around kids."
He cites Missouri's Amy Hestir Student Protection Act as an example of a safety policy gone wrong. In July 2011, the state enacted the law, which modified a number of statutes designed to protect children from sex offenders. It was named after a woman who testified before the Missouri General Assembly, the state legislature, about sex abuse she experienced at the hands of a teacher when she was a teenager in the 1980s.
The law included a ban on teachers communicating via any "non-work-related internet site [e.g., Facebook] that allows exclusive access with a current or former student." Passed unanimously by the legislature, the ban didn't cause much of a stir until the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Eastern Missouri sued the state on behalf of the Missouri State Teachers Association. An injunction based on a First Amendment challenge temporarily barred enforcement of that provision of the law.
"Missouri is a lesson in [what happens] when we don't get ahead of the curve and we're reacting," Krueger says. "Silly things can be passed with good intentions which may have unintended consequences. …