Safety and Security of Students When Using Electronic Communications

(I) IN GENERAL. -- In carrying out its responsibilities under subsection (h), each school ... shall--
(A) adopt and implement an Internet safety policy that addresses--
...
(ii) the safety and security of minors when using electronic mail, chat rooms, and other forms of direct electronic commerce .


A Sad Story

New Mexico has a new virtual high school. Coursework for the virtual high school is dependent upon e-mail, but at least one school district is using a filtering system that blocks all e-mail. The kids type their messages and save them to disk, and the teacher takes them home with her and posts from her home e-mail at night. When a reply comes in, or another posting, she prints it out at home and takes it back to students in school the next day. So the teacher is sending the students' e-mail for them since they can't do it themselves. If a different teacher were less willing to help them on her own time, these rural students would be cut off from using virtual school courses. They expect that they will also be unable to use the chat/discussion functions of the online courses as well because chat is also blocked .

It is possible to effectively address the safety and security of students without preventing them from fully participating in valuable educational activities on the Internet. Districts or schools that think they have solved the concerns by blocking access are interfering with student education and exacerbating the concerns presented by the digital divide. These districts or schools are also probably not effectively addressing the education of their students in online safe communication skills.

Direct Electronic Communication in Schools

The use of e-mail and other forms of direct electronic communication for instructional purposes is becoming increasingly important. Some districts have thought the costs of providing the facilities for such communication cannot be justified. Attention must be paid to purposes for which e-mail and other forms of direct electronic communication are being used to support enriching educational activities. In keeping with the educational purpose of the district's Internet system, excessive amount of use for personal purposes should be discouraged.

There are three primary forms of direct electronic communication that are being used in schools. These are:

E-mail E-mail is by far the most prevalent form of direct electronic communication. Through e-mail, students are engaging in conversations with students in other parts of the country and the world. Students are able to take online distance education classes. Students are also able to communicate with experts in subjects that students are studying.

It is true that in some districts, the use of e-mail has become just another means for students to pass notes to each other. The degree to which this kind of communication is considered acceptable varies from school to school and can be managed through traffic limits.

"Real time" communication" Real time" communication environments, such as Chat and Instant Messaging allow students to engage in real time communication with other people who are online at the same time. Many online educational services have established environments where students can engage in online chats with authors, scientists, and others. Most online distance education classes make use of "real time" communication environments.

There are also a variety or moderated and unmoderated chat environments available on the Internet. The unmoderated chat environments present the most concerns regarding the potential of coming into contact with a predator. Most of the unmoderated chat environments have little to no educational value. Districts can address concerns of such environments by establishing a list of approved "real time" environments or limiting such activity to approved class activities.

Online discussion forms or conferences Online discussion forms or conferences are also used to support distance educational classes, especially when students are participating from different areas of the world. There are other online discussion forums where students from around the world are engaging in ongoing discussions about a wide range of issues of interest or concern to youth. These environments present incredible opportunities for students to expand their understanding of our global society.

The online discussion environments can be managed in the same manner as "real time" communication environments.

Free Commercial Web-based E-mail

In some districts, where the district itself has not provided for e-mail, teachers and students who require e-mail for educational activities have utilized the services of commercial web-based e-mail providers, such as Hotmail or Yahoo mail. The use of these systems by students present significant concerns. These services are provided for free to the user, but the costs are supported by advertising. Lots of advertising. The systems are developing market profiles of their users which may contain both demographic information and interest information collected when a user responds to an advertisement. Many people are using these web-based e-mail systems to transmit pornography, invitations to engage in gambling, and all other manner of unwanted solicitations. It is possible to register on these systems as a minor, which may reduce the level of totally inappropriate traffic.

In sum, these services are simply not the kinds of places that districts should be allowing students to use. HOWEVER, districts should never simply dictate that all use of commercial web-based e-mail systems should immediately terminate. Teachers and students are using these services for valuable educational activities. Alternatives must be put into place prior to any restrictions being placed on the use of these systems.

Subscription-based Services

Some districts simply do not the resources necessary to support a district-based e-mail system. In such a case, there are reasonable alternatives that provide an excellent, safe educational environment for students. In some cases, these educational web-based e-mail services have been initiated as free services, supported by more appropriate advertising. However, the advertising model is not stable and most of these systems are transitioning to a subscription-based service. Fortunately, the subscription costs are quire reasonable. Any district that cannot afford to maintain its own e-mail system should consider such services as an alternative.

Why is There Concern about the Safety and Security of Students?

The concern that Congress wants districts to address is the concern of online sexual predators and other potentially dangerous individuals who may communicate with students through the Internet, including cult or hate group recruiters. It is also likely that parents have concerns about the potential of such online predation.

While certainly all educators, parents, and decision-makers should be concerned about online predation, it is very important to understand these risks in the context. Young people who are "at risk" for online predation are "at risk," period. A recent study conducted by University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Youth Policy on sexual exploitation of children found that 47 percent of sexual assaults on children were committed by relatives and 49 percent were committed by acquaintances, such as a teacher, coach, neighbor. Only 4 percent of sexual assaults were committed by strangers. No data was collected on the percentage of sexual assaults committed by strangers who contacted the child through the Internet, but this figure will necessarily be a percentage of the 4 percent . Further, this study revealed that a disproportionate number of the street youth who had run away from home, and were thus being assaulted by strangers, had histories of recurring physical and sexual abuse at home.

Therefore, while it is important for districts to address the concern of online sexual and other predation, it is far more important that districts provide the leadership to address the far more prevalent concern, which is the very real sexual and physical abuse that is already occurring to students within their own homes and community. The University of Pennsylvania report contains recommendations for an agenda to address the very real concerns of the sexual exploitation of children in the U.S. Addressing the action points recommended in this report are critically important. Districts can provide the leadership within their community to do so.

Teen Power

It is also important for educators to be aware that many teenagers have the online predation situation pretty well under control. These teenagers can recognize predators for who they are and quickly tell them to "get lost." Unfortunately, we have not yet taken full advantage to "teen power" to address the concerns of online predation. If more teenagers knew how to recognize, and preserve evidence, and report cases of contact by a possible predator, the ability of legal authorities to identify and prosecute these individuals would greatly increase. Teenagers simply do not know how important this is. Schools can help educate them about the importance.

Additionally, it is highly likely that any student who is thinking about meeting with an individual he or she has met online will share such plans with a friend. Students need to understand the potential dangers and the importance of never meeting with an online stranger outside of the presence of a parent or other adult. Students need to understand the potential consequences to their friends under such circumstances and recognize the need to either dissuade their friend from engaging in such a meeting or, if unsuccessful, to tell an adult.

Students must learn how to recognize signs of a predator, how to preserve and report evidence, the importance of practicing safe skills, and the importance of watching out for the well-being of their friends. It is critically important that students learn and practice these skills in school. Districts that think they have solved the problem of online sexual predation may not think it is important to teach these important online safety skills.

Online Flirtations and Sex

Educators also must be aware that participating in online sex has become part of teen culture. Since such activities involve self-stimulation, it is highly unlikely that students will be engaging in online sex at school. The thought that young people are engaging in online sex can be disconcerting to many adults. It is important to place this concern into perspective. The activity almost always occurs within the safety of the young person's bedroom. There is no chance of getting pregnant, contracting a sexually transmitted disease, or being raped (although reportedly "virtual rape" can occur). Additionally, just as young people talk about sex and flirt with others in the "real world" they are doing so online.

The reason it is important for educators to know about youth involvement in online discussions about sex, online flirtation, and online sex relates to the issue of perspective. If educators portray all online activities related to sex as wrong and dangerous, students may dismiss warnings about sexual predation.

Unfortunately, as this issue is a "hot button issue" there is little guidance to be found to assist young people in knowing where the boundaries are between safe and unsafe behavior. Clearly, the prohibition against in-person meetings outside of the presence of an adult is one boundary, but there are probably also other important boundaries. In discussions with students about sexual predation, it is perhaps most important that educators allow the students to take the lead and explain to their peers their understandings of where the boundaries between safe and unsafe behavior lie. It is likely that astute teenagers know more than we do about these situations.

Personal Contact Information

The most common recommendation to young people regarding personal protection is not to disclose their name and other contact information. Provisions against such disclosure appear in most currently used Internet use policies. This prohibition, however, may be unworkable in schools if adherence is rigidly required. How does a student use the Internet to request a college catalogue, or send a resume for a possible job or internship opportunity if the student cannot provide his/her name and address? Clearly, there are some cases where disclosure of full name and contact information should be considered to be perfectly acceptable. Such situations are most likely to emerge in high school situations.

Addressing the Concerns

The following are strategies that districts should consider implementing to address the safety and security of their students when using electronic communication systems

  • For elementary students limit e-mail access to class accounts or systems where the teacher has full and immediate access to all electronic communication. Allow secondary students to have e-mail accounts to support educational activities. Establish the accounts with usernames that will help to protect the student's actual name. Do not simply use the student's last name. Most students will sign their messages with their first name and would thereby reveal their full name.

  • For all students, limit the use of "real time" communication activities only under the direct supervision of a teacher or in moderated environments that have been established to support educational activities and have been approved by the school. Students should be able to identify and access the approved educational communication environments through the school's web site.

  • Place strict limits on the size and level of activity allowed through student e-mail accounts. Students who have an educationally-justifiable reason for a greater amount of e-mail use, such as students in school leadership positions, school newspaper staff, etc. may petition for greater storage and use limits. Indicate to students that excessive e-mail activity that has not been justified may create a reasonable suspicion that the student is misusing his/her e-mail account for personal purposes.

  • Do not allow the use of the free, advertiser-supported commercial web-based e-mail services through the district's Internet system. However, prior to putting this restriction in place, ensure that other e-mail services are available.

  • Include in the policy several provisions addressing student safety, including communication safety, personal privacy, protecting the privacy of others.

    * Elementary and middle students should not disclose their full name or any other personal contact information for any purpose. High school students should not disclose personal contact information, except to education institutions for educational purposes, companies or other entities for career development purposes, or with specific staff approval. Personal contact information includes the student's full name together with other information that would allow an individual to locate the student, such as parent's name, home address or location, work address or location, or phone number.

    * Students should not disclose names or personal contact information about other students under any circumstances.

    * Students should not agree to meet with someone they have met online without their parent's approval and participation.

    * Students should promptly disclose to their teacher or other school employee any message they receive that is inappropriate or makes them feel uncomfortable. Students should not delete such messages until instructed to do so by a staff member.

  • In the professional development delivered to district staff around the safe and responsible use of the Internet, ensure that teachers are aware of issues related to online predation. Teachers must be attentive to the warning signs that students may display if they have become involved with an online predator of any kind or if they are involved in other forms of abuse.

  • Address issues of online predation in classes for students related to the safe and responsible use of the Internet, as well as sex education classes. Students should be well aware of the very real trauma that other young people have gotten themselves into when they met with an online stranger. Students should also know the signs of predation and when they might be at risk for becoming involved with a predator. Stress the importance of saving and reporting evidence of such interactions as a contribution to the well-being of other young people. Also discuss and practice how students can intervene with their friends who may be foolishly thinking of meeting with an online stranger.

  • Provide leadership within your community to address all forms of sexual and physical abuse.