Web work by students has its limits Policy: Baltimore County schools, in trying to protect children from predators, prevent the publication of their pictures or last names on the Internet.

October 31, 1997|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Dulaney High School's journalism students would like to show off their award-winning newspaper on the World Wide Web once again.

But they pulled the online version this fall because of a restrictive county policy that bars students from using their last names on the Internet -- a policy the county says is needed to protect students from sexual predators and others who may misuse the service.

"They're claiming it protects students from the dangers of the Internet, but it doesn't make any sense," says Lora Henry, 17, features editor of the Dulaney High School Griffin. "How can we be a newspaper and put it on the Internet only with students' first names? What's the point in doing that?"

The conflict over Baltimore County's Internet policy -- the most restrictive in the Baltimore area -- illustrates the trouble school systems face in trying to protect students from the dangers of new technology.

Educators fear that sexual predators or others seeking to take advantage of children may contact students through school computers and home pages. They're also concerned about students' stumbling across inappropriate material on the Internet.

In Howard County, educators struggled for more than a year to decide whether students should be allowed to use the Internet without supervision. They settled on different standard for elementary, middle and high school students.

Anne Arundel County students and teachers last spring unsuccessfully fought a prohibition against school home pages connecting to anything else on the Web.

Even Baltimore County's new policy is not consistent. Though fewer than 10 of the county's two dozen high schools have Internet home pages, several continue to display students' first and last names in violation of the county rule.

"Just about every school system runs into trouble at some time or another," says Cheryl Williams, director of technology programs at the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. "A lot of people also seem to fear the Internet, which leads them to set more restrictive policies than are necessary."

Baltimore County's "Telecommunications Policy" -- approved by the school board in June after 10 months of study by educators -- covers everything from the rules students must obey to search the Web to whether schools may place copyrighted material on home pages.

But the restriction on student names and pictures has attracted the most attention this fall.

Under the policy, school home-pages aren't allowed to identify students with anything more than their first names and the first initials of their last names.

Photos of students also are prohibited on those home pages, unless there are at least four students in the picture and the parents of every student in the picture have signed permission slips.

Neither Williams nor Marc Goodman, executive director of the nonprofit Student Press Law Center, of Arlington, Va., have heard of a policy similar to Baltimore County's prohibition on using students' last names.

Baltimore County educators defend the policy as a way to help protect students from the dangers of the Internet -- particularly from computer users who may be seeking to exploit children. They acknowledge, however, that the policy may need to be reviewed.

"Obviously, the whole area of Internet policies and telecommunications use is very new for school systems," says Baltimore County schools spokesman Donald I. Mohler. "Our policy was put into effect after many months of work by many people, but we're still trying to figure out all of its effects.

"If we find that there are unintended consequences of the policy that prove to be problems, I'm sure we'll go back and see if we can fix the problem," Mohler says.

Such consequences already are at work at Patapsco High and Center for the Arts, where student artwork is displayed on the Internet without full credit for students, says Assistant Principal Jerry Backof, who oversees the school's home page.

Backof removed last names after the policy was approved. Student art now carries such identifications as "Chris W., Grade 12" and "Tony G., Grade 12."

"Kids applying to college may want to suggest that the admissions office refer to our Web page to check out their art, but who's to say that there isn't more than one 'Chris W.' in a senior class?" Backof says. "I really wish we could give our kids the spotlight they deserve for their work on computers and the Internet."

But compliance with the new policy on all Baltimore County school home pages is not uniform -- even though the consequences for staff members who break the rules can be as severe as being fired.

Towson High School's literary magazine -- the Colophon -- continues to display the first and last names of students who worked on the 1996-1997 edition. Parkville High School's home page includes last year's list of student officers, most of whom still attend the school.

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