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The best part about linking schools to the Internet is providing students with unlimited access to a world of information.
That's also the worst part.
Many schools are struggling with how to walk the fine line between providing students with access while protecting them from the potential dangers that lurk in cyberspace. If they make a misstep, the schools risk being sued for negligence.
A policy on Internet usage and strict enforcement are key to a school district's risk management, attorneys and consultants say.
The goal is "maximum access with minimum risks," said Elizabeth Puddington, executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Insurance Trust in Man-chester, N.H. She said educators want their students using the Internet but are concerned about possible risks to students and to the school districts.
Because of a limited number of court opinions available to guide schools on their potential liability exposures, they are plunging into the unknown every day, said Doug Mann, an attorney with the Tulsa, Okla., law firm of Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold, which represents numerous school districts.
"Schools are concerned about protecting students from inappropriate material," he said. "I think its fair to say schools have to feel their way along with this thing."
And the Internet provides plenty of inappropriate material to keep school officials and students' parents awake at night.
"There is available on the Internet a lot of pretty awful stuff," said Eugene Anderson, a partner with New York's Anderson Kill & Olick. It runs from sexually explicit sites to ones that detail how to make a bomb in a chemistry lab, to ones that illustrate how to commit suicide, he said.
And the potential for exposure is growing, with the growing use of the Internet. Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission decided to provide $2.25 billion a year, starting Jan. 1, 1998, in discounts on phone services to allow public schools to access the Internet.
What primarily concerns schools is having their students access sites that are inappropriate for them. When parents subsequently hear what their children have been exposed to at school, they could sue the school alleging negligent supervision.
For example, if a group of students accessed a World Wide Web site for a cult and some of those students then joined the cult, which later committed mass suicide, "the parents would have a claim against the school administration for those deaths," Mr. Anderson said.
A few months ago, such a scenario might have sounded far-fetched, but after the recent suicide deaths of the Heaven's Gate cult members, who used an Internet home page, such a scenario seems more plausible.
Another risk occurs if students were to harm others based on information obtained via unrestricted access to the Internet at school. Take, for example, students that construct a bomb based on instructions provided on a Web site. If the bomb explodes and injures students, "the school administration might have a legal problem," Mr. Anderson said.
Another potential liability is when students use school computers to illegally enter other computer networks. This "hacking" from school property also might expose the school to liability, said Ms. Puddington.
Also, students and teachers taking copyrighted material off the Internet and distributing it to a broad audience could create copyright infringement exposures for the school. A limited distribution is acceptable under copyright law as "fair use," said Mr. Mann, the Tulsa attorney, but distribution to a large group could constitute an infringement of copyright laws.
He recommends that students and faculty adopt the attitude that whatever comes off the Internet is copyrighted to reduce the chances of misappropriating the material.
"Chat rooms" also create potential liability. These areas of the Internet are places to meet other people and exchange messages. But they have been used by adults to meet and prey on children who don't realize the potential dangers, said Maia Hughes, a consultant with Tillinghast-Towers Perrin in Parsippany, N.J.
An increasing number of schools, however, are not in the dark about their potential liabilities and are taking steps to protect themselves.
Many schools have a "heightened awareness of the need to gear up for potential liability from use of the Internet," said Ms. Puddington.
The main protection against liability is having an Internet use policy, those involved with the issue say.
"This needs to be a policy that is drafted by lawyers and has a number of things in it to protect the school district," said Mr. Mann.
The policies generally outline the ground rules for student use of the Internet at school and what types of sites should not be accessed. Also, they state that any student that violates the policy is subject to disciplinary action, including suspension. A policy also should restrict Internet use to educational purposes only, and not for personal use.
The policy is the key to limiting any potential liability, he said. "It's only when they don't have a policy, don't enforce it or are lax on enforcement they will have a problem with liability," he said.
For example, the Concord, N.H., student guide for Internet access states: "The Network is provided for students to conduct research and communicate with others. Independent access to network services is provided to students who agree to act in a considerate and responsible manner. Access is a privilege, not a right. Access entails responsibility."
"Individual users of the district computer networks are responsible for their behavior and communications over those networks. It is presumed that users will comply with district standards and will follow the rules outlined in the Student Handbook."
The guidelines then list some prohibited activities, including: sending or displaying offensive messages or pictures, using obscene language, harassing others, violating copyright laws, or trespassing in others' files.
The school system developed these policies while linking up its schools to the Internet.
Since February 1996, every classroom in the district has had Internet access, for a total of more than 500 access points from 11 schools. Also, the schools are hooked up through a high-speed link, providing faster access than available through a conventional modem, said Mark Denoncour, the school district's technology coordinator.
A key aspect of the district's implementation of its Internet policy was involving the parents. Most parents were unfamiliar with the Internet and the risks involved in providing access to it, Mr. Denoncour said. "All parties must be involved in the process and know of the risks and problems," he said. Parents and students, along with school officials, were involved in drafting the policy.
"Communicating the risks to the parents and the parents communicating it to the kids is how you solve a lot of issues," he said. With the parents knowledgeable of the risks on the Internet, they will be less likely to bring a suit, he added.
But just having an Internet usage policy is not sufficient to minimize the risks.
Pete Ligeros, an attorney in Newport Beach, Calif., who has written on liability on the Internet, said a policy "is a good start" but risk management does not end there.
Mr. Ligeros said that any policy must also be enforced by teachers and school administrators-and the stricter the enforcement the better.
Software that blocks access to certain Web sites, can help. These electronic filters, including such products as Cyber Patrol, Net Nanny or SurfWatch, can help limit what the students see, but they are not foolproof.
"It's helpful, but only so helpful," said Ms. Hughes.
Concord uses electronic filters, "but nothing substitutes an active supervising teacher," Mr. Denoncour said.
"Kids require supervision," he said. Allowing students to use the Internet without supervision is like allowing students unsupervised access to the playground, he said.
If a school were sued for negligent supervision, it's not clear whether a standard CGL policy would apply. Mr. Ligeros, the Newport Beach attorney, said that in the past 10 years, insurers have with greater frequency denied or disputed all types of coverage. Combine that with the uncertainty of new Internet exposures, and he says schools should have insurance coverage that specifically cover their Internet liability risks.
"It's become very complex, because you have to live with technical coverage of policies," he said. "Schools can't just buy a bunch of policies and throw them against the board and say we're covered.'