Mixed blessings: Computer use in schools - Education Matters Magazine

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Mixed blessings: Computer use in schools

The US has a long history demonstrating what can go wrong when students and computers combine. Legal and educational academic Charles J. Russo shares his insights, including how to develop a good acceptable use policy for your school.

Rapid developments in computer technology whether in Australia or the United States can best be described as mixed blessings in schools. On the one hand, access to online data greatly expands the horizons of student learning as administrative uses of computers help to enhance effective school operations. On the other hand, the abuse of technology when students harass peers or educators or when teachers misuse computers leads to untold headaches for building level educational leaders and governing bodies as they strive to maintain safe and orderly learning environments.

As litigation involving the misuse of technology by students and teachers in the US continues to grow, this article relies on examples of American litigation to serve as a cautionary tale for Australian educational leaders and governing boards as they work to develop acceptable use policies (AUPs) to regulate computer use by students and teachers. As an initial matter, it should be noted that this column focuses on AUPs for computers because the use of mobile phones and related hand-held technological devices leads to a separate set of cases and recommendations for practice. After briefly highlighting illustrative cases involving the misuse of computers, this column offers recommendations for educational leaders and governing boards to consider when developing or revising their AUPs.

Litigation Involving Students

In early cases, parents successfully challenged AUPs in federal trial courts in Missouri (Beussink ex rel. Beussink v. Woodland R-IV School District, 1998), Michigan (Mahaffey ex rel. Mahaffey v. Aldrich, 2002), Ohio (Coy v. Board of Education of the North Canton City Schools, 2002), and Pennsylvania (Killion v. Franklin Regional School District, 2001, Flaherty v. Keystone Oaks School District, 2003). These courts invalidated policies subjecting their children to discipline, typically for harassing peers, because AUPs were vague and overbroad in imprecisely targeting prohibited conduct.

Conversely, when students viewed a website that a classmate created at home, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania refused to overturn his expulsion because their actions created a disruption in school (J.S. v. Bethlehem Area School District, 2002). Similarly, the Second Circuit affirmed an order in favor of a school board in New York that suspended an eighth-grader after officials learned that he used an instant messaging icon on his parents’ home computer to send an image of himself to fifteen friends depicting him shooting his English teacher (Wisniewski v. Board of Education Weedsport Central School District, 2008).

Courts reached mixed results in disputes over student-created internet parodies. The Third Circuit, in a case from Pennsylvania, ruled that officials violated the rights of a high school senior in suspending him for creating an internet parody of his principal on the social networking site MySpace (Layshock v. Hermitage School District, 2010). The court explained that absent a connection between the student’s action and a substantial disruption of the school environment, the suspension was inappropriate. Conversely, the Fourth Circuit affirmed that officials did not violate a student’s First Amendment rights when he was suspended for creating and posting to a Web page ridiculing a classmate. The court agreed that once the expression reached school it would create a disruption.

An unusual case arose in Washington State. A federal trial court refused to prevent the suspension of a student who, during class, secretly videotaped his teacher on his mobile phone and posted it on YouTube in violation of school rules (Requa v. Kent School District No. 415, 2007).

Litigation Involving Teachers

Litigation involving teacher misuse of computers focused largely on inappropriate contact with students and the use of social networking sites. Even so, in an early case, an appellate court in Florida upheld the revocation of a teacher’s certification at least in part because he inappropriately accessed pornographic sites on a school computer (Stueber v. Gallagher, 2002).

Courts in Florida (Wax v. Horne, 2003) and Indiana (Chivers v. Central Noble Community Schools, 2006) refused to overturn the dismissals of teachers who sent messages containing sexually explicit content to students over the internet. Moreover, federal trial courts in Pennsylvania (Snyder v Millersville, 2008) and Connecticut (Spanierman v. Hughes, 2008), allowed school officials to terminate a student teacher’s placement for making inappropriate postings on MySpace and the employment of a teacher who posted unacceptable material on Facebook, respectively.

More recently, The Third Circuit, in a case from Pennsylvania, affirmed a school board’s motion for summary judgment in response to a teacher’s claim that officials violated her free speech rights for terminating her employment over comments she posted on her blog (Munroe v. Central Bucks School District, 2015). The court agreed that the teacher’s having referred to her students using such terms as “jerk,” “rat-like,” and “dunderheads” was not protected by the First Amendment because her comments were not on matters of public concern.


As educators face the challenge of developing, implementing, and revising AUPs for students and teachers, they should keep the following ten important interrelated points in mind.

First, governing bodies should involve faculty, staff, administrators, including then director of technology, parents, perhaps an older student because they tend to be well-informed about technology, and their lawyer, in developing AUPs.

Second, AUPs should restrict computer access to legitimate academic, instructional, or administrative purposes.

Third, in developing AUPs officials must clarify the educational missions of their school systems as they grant access to the internet. Educators should thus use their AUPs as “teachable moments” to promote programs to focus on the positive uses of the internet and technology while warning about hazards such as contacting strangers or loss of respect for others by accessing pornography that can come about as a result of unrestricted use.

Fourth, students, their parents, and teachers, should sign AUPs at the beginning of each school year. AUPs should make it clear that those who refuse to sign or fail to comply with their provisions are to be denied access to district-owned technology, especially the internet.

Fifth, AUPs should consider differentiated provisions based on student age. For example, AUPs might allow elementary school children to use the internet only in the presence of adult supervision while rules for high school students might limit the amount of time that they spend online in one sitting.

Sixth, to the extent that they are purchased and maintained with board funds, AUPs should contain clear and unequivocal language indicating that use of computer hardware and software can be restricted. This is important because by clarifying ownership issues, officials will have greater latitude in regulating access to and use of equipment.

Seventh, in regulating use of district-owned computers consistent with legitimate educational and administrative purposes, AUPs should warn against visiting inappropriate websites and transmitting materials such as viruses, jokes, and the like.

Eighth, AUPs should address privacy and use limitations such as preventing teachers from working on school computers to conduct for-profit businesses while clarifying reasonable expectations of privacy, especially as it relates to sending and receiving messages. As to privacy, AUPs should make it clear that computers, or, more properly, their hard drives, are subject to random checks for compliance regardless of whether they are used by students or teachers and whether accessed in school or from home computers linked into school servers. This part of a policy should also warn users against seeking unauthorised access to the files of others, especially in such sensitive areas as student grades and personnel material while advising users not to share their passwords with anyone, including friends.  On a related privacy issue, AUPs should remind educators that since anything they write on district-owned computers is subject to disclosure under state public records law, they should not put anything in print that they would not want the public to see.

Ninth, AUPs should identify possible sanctions ranging from loss of computer privileges to possible suspensions for students to similar penalties leading to dismissal for teachers who engage in more serious offenses. Additionally, as reflected in some of the litigation discussed earlier, school officials need to distinguish carefully between computer use at home or in school in order to avoid having AUPs struck down as vague and overbroad. Based on mixed results to date, disputes over the extent to which educational officials can discipline students for misbehavior involving the internet that does not originate in school or on school computers and servers, is one that is likely to receive increased judicial attention.

Tenth, AUPs should be reviewed annually, typically between school years, not during or immediately after controversies. Placing this time between controversies and modifying policies affords educators better perspectives. The value in reviewing policies regularly is that, in the event of litigation, such evidence can go a long way in convincing courts that educators are doing their best to be up-to-date in maintaining safe, orderly schools while safeguarding the rights of all in school communities in the face of rapid changes in the world of technology.


The challenge in keeping AUPs up-to-date is rooted in the fact that technology is well ahead of the law and is likely to remain so as students increasingly use their own hand-held devices. Still, it is essential for educational leaders to stay abreast of advances in law relating to technology. Keeping up-to-date is essential because even though the legal system is often placed in the unenviable position of reacting to emerging developments rather than adopting proactive stances to head off controversies, if leaders can implement sound AUPs, they may be able to avoid costly litigation when disputes arise over the use of technology in schools.


Beussink ex rel. Beussink v. Woodland R-IV School District, 30 F. Supp.2d 1175 (E.D. Mo. 1998). Chivers v. Central Noble Community Schools, 423 F. Supp. 2d 835 (N.D. Ind. 2006). Coy v. Board of Education of the North Canton City Schools, 205 F. Supp.2d 791 (N.D. Ohio 2002). Flaherty v. Keystone Oaks School District, 247 F. Supp.2d 698 (W.D. Pa. 2003). J.S. v. Bethlehem Area School District, 807 A.2d 847 (Pa. 2002). Killion v. Franklin Regional School District, 136 F. Supp.2d 446 (W.D. Pa. 2001). Kowalski v. Berkeley County Schools, 652 F.3d 565 (4th Cir. 2011), cert. denied, 132 S. Ct. 1095 (2012). Layshock v. Hermitage School District, 593 F.3d 249 (3d Cir. 2010). Mahaffey ex rel. Mahaffey v. Aldrich, 236 F. Supp.2d 779 (E.D. Mich. 2002). Requa v. Kent School District No. 415, 492 F. Supp.2d 1272 (W.D. Wash. 2007). Snyder v Millersville 2008 WL 5093140 (E.D. Pa 2008). Spanierman v. Hughes, 576 F. Supp.2d  292 (D. Conn. 2008). Stueber v. Gallagher, 812 So. 2d 454 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2002). Wax v. Horne, 844 So. 2d 797 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2003). Wisniewski v. Board of Educ. Weedsport Central School District, 494 F.3d 34 (2d Cir. 2007), cert. denied, 552 U.S. 1296 (2008).

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