I’m on an airplane flying from Seattle to Denver, enroute back from the NCCE conference to my home in Oklahoma. NCCE was a great conference, and I really enjoyed the opportunities to present as well as have conversations with so many educators from around the Pacific northwest.

One of the most troubling themes in several of my conversations with district IT personnel as well as teachers regarded the fear of litigation which seems to “rule the network” in many school districts. This fear literally dictates the network use policies which predominate in some schools. In some cases, lawyers advising the school district as well as district IT support staff have encouraged the adoption of policies which prohibit ALL types of user created content from being shared online by students as well as teachers. The primary reason for this encouragement and policy is not the law (CIPA) but rather a common fear that someone (a student or a teacher) will publish something objectionable or inappropriate, which will lead to a lawsuit from an angry parent. This circumstance is not unique to schools in the Pacific northwest, of course. Many of our school districts (especially larger ones, but not just big ones) in the southwest region of the United States also maintain network use policies driven more by litigation fear than by the letter of the law.

One of the teachers I visited with in Seattle this week told me that her district had told her if she chose to publish any student work on a website or blog site she maintained, she would be “on her own” and “directly, personally liable” for anything bad which happened as a result of student work being published there. How’s that for school district non-support of 21st century learning skills and learning environments?! 🙁

I’ve presented several times recently (at the OU K-20 Center’s Mid-Winter conference on 31 Jan and the Oklahoma Technology Association’s annual conference on 5 Feb) on the topic of balancing creativity and freedom with safety and liability protection for our schools. While I focused on the specific requirements of CIPA for U.S. public and private schools receiving E-Rate dollars, I did not focus as much as I should have– perhaps– on prevalent litigation fears which may be driving network use policies (or network NON-use policies) more than the actual verbage of laws now on the books.

Schools and school districts in the United States are inherently conservative organizations. Often, school board members and school administrators are retained and promoted based NOT on their track record for providing innovative approaches to education, but rather their proven abilities to maintain the status quo. This pressure to maintain “situation normal” is not limited to realms of educational technology, of course. One of the most unfortunate examples with which I am personally familiar, regards the availability (or again in this case, the NON-availability) of playground equipment at elementary schools in the Texas public school district in which I taught and my students attended school from (cumulatively) 1996 through 2006.

Playground equipment

In this large Texas school district, all playground equipment was removed from some elementary schools, and PTA/PTO groups were prevented from purchasing ANY playground equipment for students, because of the district’s fear of a lawsuit from a parent whose child was injured on the playground. Of course, because of the voluntary response of some district leaders to high stakes testing and TAAS/TEKS/NCLB, in some elementary schools recess was officially removed from the schedule for students after second grade (8 year olds) because the leaders felt kids shouldn’t waste time developing social skills and unstructured play skills on the playground, and instead should be inside sitting quietly in their desks… completing more worksheets to help insure student test scores would be adequate (meet minimum standards) for the mandated tests at the end of the year. In a situation like that, who needs playgrounds at an elementary school? We’ve got plenty of worksheets for students to do, so hopefully that will suffice to help them exercise their upper bodies… or at least their hands.

I’m quite troubled by this apparently common experience of educators in school districts where policies seem to be more driven by a FEAR of litigation rather than what is best for children. Will fear of litigation drive some of our schools to ban all technologies outright, just as some of our Texas school districts have gotten rid of playground equipment at elementary schools? I certainly hope not, but the prevalence of litigation fear in some of our schools is certainly discouraging. This fear of students and what they could do (a general distrust of students as well as teachers) may account for the broad LACK of support I’m finding in Oklahoma for 1:1 learning initiatives in most school districts.

One of the primary questions I’ll be taking to the COSN conference in Washington D.C. in a week will be this: How are schools who are embracing student and teacher publication of media and content online avoiding this prevalent paralysis of permitted network usage which we see in other school districts? This might be a great question for Tony Vincent and others involved (past and present) with Willowdale Elementary School and Millard Public Schools to field.

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7 Responses to When litigation fear rules the network

  1. Soojin says:

    This is soojin, and I found your blog via twitter.
    I don’t get why school enforces IT education when they block user created contents. That’s nothing different than having a big computer lab in a school… it’s retarded.

    There’s been a similar law all the way in Korea. People were not supposed to stand in single file straight lines in the escalators because that might make people trip over.

    Anyways, if Fear is the case, the one should be educated first are the (retarded) PARENTS according to your post because if with parental consent everything will work fine.

  2. AllanahK says:

    I am astounded at the fear that surrounds some American schools. Where did it come from? Was it always there and is growing feeding on itself?

    I think one of the prime reasons school itself exists is for children learn how to socialise- how to work through problems- to have a childhood.

    We live in strange times.

  3. Silvia says:

    Thanks for raising such a complex topic.
    I am from Argentina and the story seems to be the same. FEAR of litigation many times rules the schools. The main problem is that the relationship between the school and parents has changed in the last decades. The school-parent alliance is broken and it is necessary to help parents be active partners in the education of their children.
    In my opinion, debate is the key. Debate between parents, school board members, school administrators, students and educators. We need to encourage professional reflection on how to face change in education.

  4. Tony Vincent says:

    It’s sad to hear about such strong fear when the benefits of online publishing are so great. When I was with Millard Public Schools, we had parents and students sign release forms allowing for web publishing. However, Millard continues to have the policy that online student work must reside on the school district’s own web server. That means no external blogging sites like edublogs, no podcasting with services like Gcast, and no Google Docs. I guess they want to be sure that if anything inappropriate was published, at least they would be able to pull the plug very quickly since they control the server.

  5. Lori Burch says:

    I understand the fears and the desire to protect our students. However, if we so isolate them and “protect” them by shutting out all real world experiences, good and bad, how do we ever hope to be able to teach them how to exist in the real world outside of schools and how to behave in a responsible, ethical manner when they are on their own time, publishing their “stuff” on their own, which we can be certain they will do and are doing?

  6. […] curriculum, let the lawyeres decide. Posted in Technology by preaprez on March 3rd, 2008 Moving at the Speed of Creativity tells way too common a story: One of the teachers I visited with in Seattle this week told me that […]

  7. I teach in Greenwich, CT that probably has more lawyers per capita than any other city in the nation! I teach Music Technology and if I am not on the cutting edge along with my 14 – 18 year old students, my class is dead in the water (translate that to no kids signing up for my class then translate that to I’m out of a job). Having the most sophisitcated equipment and software doesn’t cut it any more. For generations, teachers have been responsible for making bulletin boards in classrooms and hallways to display student work. Today’s bulletin board is the net and parents are, for the most part, thrilled to see their kids work “published”. As part of our District Internet User Agreement (no student can use a District computer without signing one), parents can opt out of having their kids work post on the district server/website. I cover myself a few steps further. First, I never post student music on my own site or blog. I also make sure I have parents sign a separate release for student produced podcasts that contain student images, student first names only and student produced music. We are moving into the new realm of Digital Content Dilivery (what I call “The High Tech Bake Sale”) via phones and music aggregators such as iTunes. Parents and students sign a separate release for that. Yeah, it’s a lot of paper but I get to cover myself and the District. Everyone is happy.

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