Trying to draw the line in cyberspace at school Howard panel weighs limiting Internet use

June 20, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Jumping into one of the thorniest issues of the computer age, the Howard County school system is trying to craft rules governing student use of the Internet.

That task may have gained some urgency last week, when a federal court blocked a law designed to shield children from sexually explicit ideas and images on the Internet. School officials don't want students finding such materials during their in-school research.

"It is kind of a tough balance," said Matt Skillman, who graduated from Howard High School this spring and is a student member of the committee charged with drafting an Internet policy.

"There's the pessimistic view, that everything that can go wrong will go wrong and students will find a lot of inappropriate material," he said. "Then there's the optimistic view, which is that the Internet is the greatest information source out there for student learning.

"The key is finding a balance between the two."

Ten Howard schools already have access to the Internet through computers in classrooms, and the school system is working to provide access in the rest of the county's schools as soon as possible, said Richard Weisenhoff, coordinator of the system's office of education technologies.

The Howard school system also has a home page on the World Wide Web, Weisenhoff said. Many schools have placed home pages on the Internet through commercial providers, and they likely would be allowed to link the pages to the school system's Web site.

School officials have been cautious in their approach to student use of the Internet. The policy now requires teacher supervision whenever students are connected to the Internet.

L But the Internet committee has proposed loosening the rules.

Under its latest -- but not final -- proposal, students would be allowed to conduct research on the Internet without supervision, provided they have permission slips from their parents and promise not to seek such inappropriate material as "cyber-porn."

"It's a middle-of-the-road approach, allowing students access through certain guidelines," said Weisenhoff, who is the committee's chairman. Comparing the permission slip to a driver's license, Weisenhoff said it could be revoked for inappropriate use, which would prohibit offenders from accessing the Internet in school. Similar policies work well in other school systems, he said.

But the proposed policy has run into stiff opposition from school board members, who say they are particularly concerned about middle school students who might have parental permission to use the Internet but may not have the maturity to avoid inappropriate material.

"I have a great problem with the Internet because there is no age-appropriateness," said board member Sandra French. "I know some child is going to find [inappropriate materials] very quickly, and we are going to get into trouble."

Board members also questioned the wisdom of allowing students to have access to research materials on the Internet that school officials haven't scrutinized first, though that is not possible. In the schools, textbooks and media materials are reviewed before they are approved for classroom use.

"Why control instructional materials if then we allow the door wide open on the Internet?" French asked.

Some teachers familiar with student use of the global network of networks agree with the concerns but say they hope that whatever policy the board sets will allow students to take advantage of the opportunities.

"I believe middle school students should be taught to use the Internet, but you have to use common sense," said Terry Sullivan, who teaches in Elkridge Landing Middle School's gifted-and-talented program. "It's important for a teacher to be around and supervise them, placing limits on what they're looking for."

Another issue is equity. Many students have access to the Internet at home, so Howard educators say that to achieve equity, they must provide access at school for those without it at home.

"While a lot of kids at our school have access to the technology at home, many don't, and if we don't find a way to make it available to everyone, we'll have a gap between the haves and the have-nots in the ability to access information," said Marilyn O'Laughlin, media specialist at Burleigh Manor Middle School and a member of the committee.

For now, committee members will return to work, bringing back a revised policy for the fall that likely will be more restrictive than the latest proposal suggesting "licenses" to use the Internet with parental permission.

In offering their final instructions to the committee, school board members last week said they believe the Internet is valuable but warn that it's impossible to distinguish between which students will use it properly and which will be tempted to seek out inappropriate material.

"We're going to have to impose restrictions on some who don't need it because of others," said board member Karen Campbell. "We're going to struggle with this and we're going to flounder."

Nevertheless, Howard school officials pledge to ensure that students have as much access to technology as possible while maintaining appropriate standards.

Pub Date: 6/20/96

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