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Keep the Lens Cap On: Internet Security and Privacy in a School Setting

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former blogger
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I have been working with a few school districts on maximizing their technology's impact, and the issue of student security and privacy often comes up. This blog entry is meant as material for discussion, and my comments or thoughts are not intended to serve as legal advice in any way. This post is simply a way to start the discussion and is an opportunity for all of us to hear various perspectives.


How many of you have seen this: A proud parent attend a child's school program, such as a band performance, chorus concert, or play, and he or she takes way too many photos of the event or records every second on videotape. I certainly have! We're proud of our children. We want all their shining moments captured so we can view them again and again, inflict them on unwitting friends and relatives, and use them to embarrass our kids years down the road, right?

In all seriousness, we do want to record the events of our children's lives, because those events are precious. The digital age has made this so much easier. Now, not only can we photograph and videotape these performances, but we can also share the recordings with friends and relatives around the world with a few quick clicks of a mouse. We can also archive them in multiple ways, safely securing and storing them for any time we might want to watch and listen again.

I've certainly taken full advantage of the many opportunities to record my own child, and to digitally mix and share those recordings. I have them stored on my computer, backed up onto a separate hard drive and, in some cases, shared in online folders. However, I'm careful not to expose private information or put my child in harm's way. Further, I certainly don't include images or videos of other people's children. If other children are a part of the video, I simply don't share it outside my own family.

For the Record

This new technology has made the whole process of videotaping or photographing school events more complicated. What if a parent wants to film the whole concert and post it on YouTube? What does a school say to that? Do other parents know that their child might be visible in this video that will be available to the whole world? Does it matter? Does a school ban videotaping all together just to be safe? A school in Virginia recently found itself in this very situation, and it is finding it difficult to balance the tradition of proud parents wanting to videotape these special moments with the need to protect people's right to privacy from a worldwide Internet audience.

Also, if a school choir has permission to sing songs, does that permission extend to someone recording those songs and uploading them to a Web page? That's not likely, depending on the song and its copyright details.

Here's how a district I've recently been in contact with has handled it. Charlie Makela, from Arlington Public Schools, in Arlington, Virginia, says, "The copyright issue was an easy one because, usually, the performance rights that accompany most music and plays do have stipulations concerning recording the performance. A careful reading of the license will indicate if recording is allowed. We asked a number of educators what they thought, and most people responded that we should develop a disclaimer and print it on the event's program to indicate that we do not allow the recording of the performance. Some even suggested an announcement at the beginning of the event to remind parents of the law."

YouTube, for example, clearly states in its user agreement that uploaders should follow all copyright laws and that users assume all responsibility for posting only legal materials. We can inform parents of the copyright legalities, but can we enforce them? Is it even the school's responsibility?

Picture Puzzle

Of greater concern to many was the issue of posting the children's pictures or videos online. Some educators felt that because the school is considered a public place, we cannot prohibit parents from taking pictures. But most school districts have a policy in place regarding uploading of student pictures, and they strongly recommend that we remind parents about the possible dangers of posting both pictures and the names of students on the Internet. (Schools can do this as part of an Internet-safety outreach to parents: Many parents do not perceive posting pictures of their child's performance as dangerous; they simply wish to share their child's talents with family and friends.)

The Arlington schools are working on possible solutions. One idea is to simply educate parents, providing clear reminders about copyright laws and safety, but stopping there and not attempting to monitor parents at all. Another tactic would be to strongly discourage parents from recording events, but not necessarily enforce a ban. A third tack would be to prohibit recording of any kind in order to protect everyone involved.

How does your school or district handle this? Has it come up yet? What solution did you reach? Please share your thoughts here.

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Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former blogger

Comments (17) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Felisha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Technology is growing more and more each day. As a teacher my problem with the blocking issue is that sometimes the most common things that you are searching for comes back as a blocked site and everything that comes back blocked is not inappropriate for school. The librarian at my school was teaching a lesson to the middle school students about the fake websites that look really valid but are fake. The website was a physician's website but it was blocked. Also any images that I look for are blocked. I can understand some of the blocks but some are too much. Some of the work that I need to do at school I have to wait until I get home to finish my work. I really think there should be a way that you can add or filter some of the websites that teachers need that are really not inappropriate.

Debbie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Chris, I had never thought of this before but as a former music teacher turned geek, you are right in saying that there are stringent copyright rules on recording performances by anyone. This includes musicals performed by your school's drama department as well. You are allowed one archival copy of anything but above that you cannot produce, sell, and I would think you would include post on uTube anything you perform that is copyrighted. We used to have our concerts recorded professionally and were required to pay fees to ASCAP for every video that was sold. Purchasing enough copies of the music for each student in your classroom only gives you the right to perform it- not videotape it. That would mean that all parents videotaping their students would be in violation of copyright law. I'm sure that is much more commonplace than what we did- paying the ascap fees.

The basic rule of thumb is- "If it takes money out of the composer/musician/writers pocket, don't do it- it's not legal." This includes purchasing the music and making copies so your music won't get lost, messed up, etc. Music is considered in the same way as greeting cards-expendable. If you purchase 30 copies of an octavo and 6 of them get trashed by your kids, the only way to replace those copies is to buy 6 more. By photocopying, it goes back to the rule above- you're keeping money out of the composer's pocket for those 6 copies. Interestingly enough, composers/musicians get very little of the $2+ dollars from an octavo sale- usually about 15-25%. Most of the rest goes to the distributors, printers, production company, ad agencies, etc.

Our county has just loosened their Internet policy and it concerns many of us who are trying to promote Internet safety. We do have forms that each child/parent signs at the beginning of the year allowing their picture to be used in print, on TC, online, etc. Those who do not sign the form, can't be used. That gets a little dicey at times. Prior to this year, students entire name could not be used- only their first name. As of this school year, a student's full name can be used in any of those venues. Parents complained loudly that their sports stars, academic stars, arts stars, etc should get full credit for their achievements so now you can use their entire name. Distressing

I am interested into looking into this issue further because you're right- I'm sure there are thousands if not millions of videos online that are illegal. Be sure you send us anything you find about the topic. Thanks for including me on the email.

Carol C's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am responding to Trina's post about how devastated she and her students were when the district disabled access. I am having a related problem with my district that I am not sure how to resolve.

For our homebound students, I attempted to create a blog or webpage through our district's website, working with that site's administrator. My idea was to have one place with links to lots of different educational sites, organized by subject, and with brief comments to help kids and teachers find the best site for their purposes. I learned that over 90% of the links I had chosen did not comply with the the administrator's interpretation of district acceptable use policy (because of links to advertising, or links to places where students might do something terrible, like download music).

So, I made my own personal weblog, using (yay edublogs). Now my department head has expressed concerns about district liability if we refer kids to the blog. My supervisor suggested some sort of permission slip, but that seems to imply a connection to the district that I was trying to sever by making the blog personal.

I practiced law a long time ago, before there even was an Internet, (yes, there was a time with no Internet!), and I have tried to imagine what kind of liability might arise from referring kids to a site from which they might conceivably, through a long series of links, eventually end up at a "dangerous" site. In researching the issue, I have only been able to find liability attached to copyright violations.

I believe strongly that rather than shielding kids, we should be teaching them to shield themselves, especially because they are already so far ahead of us. I also see us become less and less relevant to our students, because we are trying to keep them safe, back where we are. The kind of fear-driven decisions like the ones that affected Trina and me only tie our hands tighter as we try to reach out to our students.

Does anyone have any experience with the kind of liability my bosses worry about? Or any strategies for educating the most difficult learners of all, i.e. administrators? Or ideas about guiding kids to use the Internet for learning some of the things we think they need to know without bankrupting our districts through liability suits?

Paul's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"But how would I feel if a pedophile happens to like my child who was innocently standing in the background on the school website?"

Why stop there..lets have kids put paper bags over their heads on the way to school so "Peds" don't get to see them at all. Infact lets have everyone wear a mask including the teachers and full body suits so we can't see skin color or ethnic features..that will solve a lot of problems too. Hey let's do away with freedom and common sense in favor of the lunatic fringe and the totalitarian state.

Where is the line between reason and lunacy. You can be sure the educational PC establishment will find it.

eric's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an IT coordinator and teacher I have been addressing the themes of Digital Citizenship among my colleagues at school, within my regional organization, and also as part of our curriculum.

I urge each school to hold workshops to educate PARENTS about internet-safety, including covering points on student-privacy on the internet.

YouTube is an inappropriate site for children under 18 years of age to be using, especially in a school environment. There is far too much content on there that is beyond their ability to understand, and quite a lot of material that is just a sheer waste of time of internet resources. Our school does not block sites like Youtube, but I educate students about the alternatives. Often, our teachers use internet video sites to show something related to a lesson, and that is fine with me, as long as they preview it first and make sure that there is no other content on the page (such as vulgar-strewn comments below the video window), or links to other videos that display inappropriate material. With dynamic live web-pages (getting updated every second) it is impossible to know what might show up on a YouTube web-page next time you access it. Schools really need to look at other video sites if they really have a need to place content on the internet. Teachertube is one good alternative, but still is not ideal.

Ideally, schools can place video-content behind password-protected access. Perhaps via their moodle, or regular website. This prevents things such as unnecessary access from 3rd parties, and also can prevent search-bots such as googlebots from creating search index content that can be found via their search-engine, keeping your school's content private from a potential audience outside your community. The question of legal use of copy-written also comes up with this kind of presentation-- does it violate copyright law if a school reuses material, such as music, behind a firewall or password.

Another interesting concept is the redistribution of classroom-material such as textbook supplemental material (videos, etc). There are a lot of educators failing to protect this content from being illegally uploaded if they have posted this stuff to their own websites. If a school or teacher, however, uploads this content behind a password-protected site for direct use with the students, then the publishers generally do not have a problem with this. Ostensibly it is peer-to-peer sharing but without profit-loss, and is legal.

So far, self-filtering has been successful, and we have had no incidents of students deliberately accessing content that is 'forbidden'. Before really including this approach in Digital Citizenship we had some minor incidents involving videos of Teletubbies cursing like sailors and videos of Paris Hilton prancing around in her underwear on our library computers. Educating ourselves to avoid these problems is far better than having some other entity such as school administration, or a government, making 'decisions' for you.

However, parents at home need to reinforce these values that educators attempt to give to students. Too many parents fail to monitor their child's online experiences. As a whole, they need to be vigilant and maintain privacy for their children-- if you do publish video content, as a teacher or a parent, then make sure you do not give away enough information to expose the child to risk. Failure to do this at home can lead to cases of cyber-bullying, or cyber-stalking, or worse.

There is much more to be said on this topic...

Emily Grice's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Althogh my students build web pages in both my digital tools and photography classes, we do not put them on the net. The discussion boards/blogs I use are user monitored by me. We always discuss privacy, safety, copyright, and ethics.

mark t's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What do know about shooting video in school if the intent is to keep the project in house? Nothing would be posted anywhere for the public to see. The context of my question is this:
I want my students to capture video all over the school for a project we are working on in class. I have overwhelming consent from teachers to allow my kids into their classrooms to capture video. One teacher suggested that I would need a permission slip from every student in the building before any video recording could occur. Prior to this concern, my assumption was: If students and staff can take candids for the year book etc. then I should be OK, After all, the video will only be worked on in my class in a controlled setting. Nothing will leave the building. Nothing will go on the web. Requiring a permission slip from everyone in the building seems a bit excessive...but is that the law?

Jen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a public relations coordinator for a local school district, and I work very closely with the local newspapers to alert them of stories and photo opportunities within my district.

It's just gotten much more complicated in the past few years, and I'm trying to figure out how to tweak or overhaul our permission form to reflect that.

The local newspapers not only print their photos in the ink version, they also post most of what they get in their Web version. Do students need special permission for that? There's also a user-generated content Web news-to-print-news publication in our town, which pretty much all the school districts and private schools use (including me). How would that be different from, say, posting student photos on our own district Web site?

Now as of the past few months, the local newspapers want to shoot video at events for their multi-media storytelling. I'm careful to have them check which students are allowed to be photographed, and only get those students on video, even in crowd shots. But is that enough?

Katherine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although in many ways I feel that the idea of prohibiting people from doing what they usually do such as filming family vacations, their kids' performances, taking pictures of a scenic moment may seem absurd in an era where internet privacy has overstepped many boundaries the irrational may be the only solution left. In a recent issue on the news a 4 year old boy took weed to a preschool claiming it was his brother's. Now because of the act all the children are forced to bring clear bags to school and not the regular color book bags they use to own. The mistakes of one person can cost the rest of society all their rights and although this may seem unfair to protect the safety of those we love that may be the only option left. However, I suppose in the end our government should be the one deciding these rules. It Is necessary that such an intervention take place.

Linda's picture

What do you do when teens "creep on each other," or bring in their own cameras, take pictures of other students unbeknownst to them, then post them on Facebook--often times to ridicule them?

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