Over at TechDirt.com, I saw an article about school internet policies. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and ACLU recently had to drop the hammer on a school district in Tennessee for a really bad internet policy.
We’ve seen over and over again recently that schools seem to have a bizarre notion of how the First Amendment works with things like “free speech zones” and the like. There are all sorts of policies popping up that try to ban free speech. In perhaps the most famous court case concerning free speech in schools, Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court noted, importantly, that students do not shed their constitutional rights just because they’ve entered a school building. More recently, the courts have (tragically) chipped away at that ruling, but the core of it still stands. And schools still don’t seem to realize that it’s true. Instead, they seem to want, increasingly, to regulate speech of students in completely unconstitutional ways.
The policy in question said that the “bring your own device” or BYOD policy allowed the district administrators to search any of those devices, and regulate any communication or other “speech” that occurred with that device. This applied even if the communication did not happen on school property or during school hours. Super-Orwellian overstep.
These policies, even at many companies, seem to be grounded in fear of legal action that the organization could get pulled into, as opposed to what is legal – or even reasonable – for the policy to contain. Parents signing forms to accept these policies often don’t think about the consequences, trundling along like lemmings. Semi-unrelated point, but I recently encountered a crazy permission form and release statement for an after-school activity. It was run by an outside organization, and was worded so broadly (or poorly) that it essentially gave that organization rights to use any photo that might ever be taken of my daughter. It seems to be a good organization and a great activity, and this was clearly not their intent. But a contract is what is written and signed, not its intent. I don’t know that any other parent complained – or even noticed…
So where does HSE, or specifically HSE 21, fall in this mix? To be honest, I’m not sure. I try to read every agreement and waiver that comes home, but there are a lot of moving parts. One form, two parents, multiple kids. Sometimes it’s hard to keep straight. But one item I do know about is email.
HSE has created, with Google, an internet domain called hsestudents.org. The email accounts are pretty locked down, so that they cannot send or receive mail except with:
- Other students on the hsestudents.org domain,
- Teachers and administrators on the hse.k12.in.us domain,
- Apple.com – so they can get email confirmations from iTunes.
They cannot send or receive email from their parents (i.e. YOU). And if another student’s parents refuse the HSE controlled email account – we are one such case, but we know of others – your student is excluded from communicating with those classmates (and vice versa). Somebody shared with me a case where excluded email contact directly resulted in a reduced grade on a class project for all students on the team. That is the most obvious flaw in the scheme, but there are others.
- Since they control the account through the Google relationship, they can reset passwords at any time. This means they can review the content at any time – or search automatically and without grounds any for suspicion.
- HSE has the unilateral right to disable any account for any reason. Not after a parent meeting to discuss some inappropriate use, but just whenever they feel like.
- With the push to use Google Drive in the schools, HSE retains the right to delete any or all Google Drive content at any time, again without any sort of due process.
- Any other service that requires an email confirmation (e.g. Microsoft recently opening up MS Office apps for iPad for free) cannot be used, since the emails will be blocked. So HSE preferred vendors are blocked while others are allowed.
- When the student graduates or leaves HSE Schools (i.e. is no longer a student), the account is destroyed. All email, contacts, associated Google Docs files, and any access to Google Docs files from other students is lost.
I don’t know…doesn’t this sound a lot like the Tennessee case above?
We asked for our daughter’s email account to be added to the safe sender’s exception list (i.e. white-list). It’s clearly possible, since Apple.com was added. But we were told that this “would begin a precedent that we do not want to begin and do not have the manpower to verify the legitimacy of the requests.” But how much time and effort is wasted – even just by school personnel involved, let alone parents and students – as this issue comes up hundreds if not thousands of times over the next few years? We have policies for everything else. Why not a simple adjustment to the form agreeing to use the hsestudents.org address? Instead of a simple checkbox where I decline to participate in this program, I instead decline and specify the alternate address to white-list. My signature is good for everything else school- and policy-related (and my taxes), so it’s certainly sufficient to “verify the legitimacy” of my daughter’s email account, which I monitor and retain ultimate control over.
So why provide a crippled email account that limits students’ capability and gives the corporation an unreasonable, illegal, unconstitutional degree of control? I was told that some parents did not want their students exposed to spam or other unsolicited email. There are other ways to deal with spam, technologies which HSE and Google already apply liberally. So I’m not buying that explanation, and I’m not buying into this program. This is a case of ownership of the content, and control over the capability. They have no right to exercise this control, and I have every right to do so. You have a responsibility as a parent to deny permission for this, or revoke it if already give (don’t worry – you’re not alone). Not the least reason is to do this before your student is old enough to realize that you put them in this position. They grow up so fast…
As the students realize that their accounts are hobbled, useless for many basic tasks, they will create their own accounts on whatever service they desire. They’ll share contacts with their friends and classmates. And many or most of these cases will be unsupervised by parents, teachers, or administrators; a “shadow network”, as it were.
The smart thing for HSE to do is accommodate these accounts within the school framework, rather than exclude them. Require parental involvement in the process rather than exclude it. The current program will take the legitimate risk that concerns these parents and ensure that it comes true. But like the release form for that after-school activity, how many parents bothered to read the hsestudents.org release form? What fraction of them understood these implications? I suspect most just said, “Yep, you have a school email,” and signed the form…