Internet use at schools must be monitored to ensure safety
As schools continue to evolve with technology by offering expanded wi-fi access and more digital educational tools, it’s important to also stay up to date with rules around appropriate use of these devices, says education lawyer Sheila MacKinnon.
“It’s a balancing of everyone’s rights — the rights of the person who’s accessing the wifi, for example, and the school board’s duty to ensure the safety of its students and staff,” she tells AdvocateDaily.com. “This is why schools must have policies for any online use.”
Many institutions, for example, block access to certain sites — most often pornographic pages, says MacKinnon.
“This is because it’s offensive to others who may see you viewing it, and it’s not an appropriate use from a school board’s point of view,” says MacKinnon, a partner with Shibley Righton LLP. “They are a public institution and so they have to balance the interest of all other students and staff and persons in the community who use the building.”
When it comes to Internet use, schools must act in loco parentis — or step into the place of a parent — to monitor activity, she says.
“It’s a safety issue to protect students under 18 years of age the same way a parent would,” she says. “They don’t want them engaging in certain chat rooms and any other inappropriate behaviour online, so the school board and in particular teachers and staff stand in the shoes of the parent. Their primary concern is safety in the same way a parent would want to ensure their child is safely using wi-fi.”
Cyberbullying, says MacKinnon, is another related issue that likely requires its own policy.
“It’s difficult to manage that, but I would think there should be an obligation when it’s emanating right there from the school to have rules in place,” she says. “I’m not sure if there’s a way to block that type of activity through the school’s wi-fi, but if there is, that should be done.”
Further complications can arise when cyberbullying takes place off school property, but its effects are carried into the classroom.
“It’s difficult because sometimes you’re managing what you would call off-school-property behaviour but it’s impacting the students in the school,” she says. “If it’s impacting students during the day at school it becomes a problem.”
Of course, like many issues in schools, appropriate use of technology — and setting limitations on use of devices — is not always clear cut.
“There may be policies where students aren’t allowed to use phones during the day, and there have been incidents I’ve heard of where parents are upset because they want to be able to reach their child throughout the day,” she says.
“I think when the teacher does have such a rule in place, it’s from the perspective of that the students are suppose to be paying attention and not texting or watching videos during class time.. If they have to go online for schoolwork that’s permitted, but clearly you’re not going to allow smartphones while writing exams, for example.”
Despite their pervasiveness, mobile devices should be viewed like any other distraction in the classroom, says MacKinnon.
“In class, students are supposed to be paying attention to the teacher, and the teacher has the obligation to control the classroom, as does the principal overseeing the teacher. If they’re just allowed to sit and text and Facebook they’re not learning. They wouldn’t allow them to sit and doodle drawings either.”