Howard County high school students will be permitted to jump onto the Internet without supervision beginning this week -- as long as they promise to obey certain rules and avoid inappropriate materials.
But county elementary and middle school students will continue to be prohibited from using the World Wide Web -- the information- and graphic-filled heart of the Internet -- except when they are directly supervised by a teacher.
The decision to allow only high school students unsupervised access to the Internet marks a retreat for school officials, who last June had suggested that the system take a more liberal approach and allow students at any level to use the Internet unsupervised as long as they had parental permission.
"I've changed my tune just a bit," said Richard Weisenhoff, who oversees the school system's office of educational technologies. "I feel the Internet should be likened to a frontier. There is a lot of good out there, but there is also a lot of bad.
"I don't believe our staff understand this completely," he said.
The new policy -- similar to ones in use in some other school systems in the Baltimore area and the rest of the country -- comes as Howard nears completion of a plan to improve technology in older schools and prepares to start systematically replacing older computers.
The new Internet policy calls on high school students and their parents to sign permission slips granting them unsupervised access to the computer network.
If students are caught breaking the rules -- including using profanity, breaking into private systems via computers, accessing sexually explicit materials or revealing personal information -- they'll lose their Internet privileges.
"My gut feeling is that our children are so bright, they're so talented, that if we're not aware of the crevasses they can fall into we'd be in a lot of trouble," said Sandra French, chairwoman of the board.
The new policy was presented to the Howard school board Tuesday night, and members offered their tacit approval, even though they were not required to vote on it. Last June, board members strongly criticized the proposal to allow younger students to submit parental permission slips for unsupervised access.
"I'm glad to hear a conservative approach," said board member Karen Campbell. "We need to have [the Internet] as a tool, but it does not need to be the primary focus."
Under the policy, high schools will begin sending home the permission slips in the next couple weeks. Until now, all Internet use in all Howard schools had to be directly supervised by teachers.
Some schools are designing "driver's licenses" to prompt students who agree -- along with their parents -- to obey the rules, Weisenhoff said.
Students who break the rules will lose their privileges and have their licenses taken away -- perhaps for a week or longer, depending upon the severity of the offense. Discipline procedures will be left up to individual schools, Weisenhoff said. He said there al- ready have been a few instances of students abusing the Internet in schools.
"I think the policy makes a lot of sense," said Cassie Thompson, a Clarksville parent who has helped River Hill High School organize much of its Internet activities. "It makes kids responsible for their actions. Now we have to teach them about that responsibility."
Students also won't be allowed to have electronic mail accounts in the schools, although teachers and other staff members will be given the opportunity to have an Internet mail address.
"We will not allow students personal accounts as long as they cannot be monitored," Weisenhoff said. "I would prefer that the teacher collect written correspondences, print the responses and hand them to students."
In addition, the policy calls for all schools to place their home pages onto the school system's server -- or main computer system -- linking them to the school system's web site. Some schools now have home pages on the system's server, while others rely on free space donated by parents or other companies.
All material on the school home pages -- as well as links to other home pages -- must be checked regularly by teachers to ensure that it isn't inappropriate, according to the policy.
The new policy also comes as the school system is rapidly jumping onto the Internet. Two schools a week are being connected directly to the Internet, and all schools are expected to be on line by the end of the school year, Weisenhoff said.
"Right now, our Internet system is over-extended," he told the board. "Our community must be made aware that establishing Internet connectivity is not an easy process and is not as easy as simply plugging a computer into a wall socket."
Still, with the conclusion this year of a three-year, $3 million plan to relieve technological inequities between older and new schools, officials already are looking to start replacing older computers.
A plan presented to the board Tuesday night calls for the system to begin spending $400,000 a year for the next six years to replace obsolete computers. Currently, most Howard schools have a mix of new computers and very old ones, and the system tries to maintain a ratio of one computer for every 10 students.
The priority will be to replace Apple IIGS computers and older IBM and IBM-compatible computers. But schools that receive new computers will be allowed to keep their older ones and use them however they can. But outdated computers kept at schools won't be counted in the school system's pupil-to-computer ratio.
"Even at the very generous sum of $400,000 per year, it will take at least 10 years to replace all computers in schools now," said Shelley Johnson, who works in the schools' office of educational technologies. "Schools that today are replacing computers probably will have to wait 10 years to replace them again."
Pub Date: 3/27/97