Once again, the Law of Unintended Consequences makes an unintended appearance in education.
It happens all too often. Years ago, Arizona decided to make passing the AIMS test a requirement for high school graduation. Oops! The initial test was too difficult. Result? Water the test down. Still too hard? Yikes! Result? Give the kids another way to graduate without passing any of the three tests.
Among the latest education reform crazes is to put more technology in schools. Online classes in some states are even required for high school graduation. And schools have been encouraged to allow kids to use their smartphones in class.
Of course, the intention is to take advantage of the Internet, to allow the kids to research online, knowing that these same kids already have more expertise in surfing the net than do most of their teachers. This idea has caught on across the country, and is gaining popularity in East Valley districts, with Gilbert Unified School District naming several of its schools as pilots for this program.
Before we jump on the smartphone as an education tool bandwagon, however, we should consider the unintended consequence: putting teachers in a potential legal bind.
As the result of another trend in education: the anti-bullying campaign.
It’s a worthy cause: Kids, as we all know, can be cruel, and texting and Facebook allow kids to exert that cruelty in novel ways.
But how does an anti-bullying campaign put teachers at risk? An addendum to a law designed to decrease the bullying. It’s called the Children’s Internet Protection Act, and while it’s a noble idea, it is nearly unworkable. Given some of its provisions, it leaves teachers potentially liable both criminally and civilly.
According to recent articles, under the CIPA, schools in Arizona “must teach cyberbullying, monitor online chats, and keep tabs on social media in schools.”
Which, of course, is a disaster in the making.
Imagine the classroom full of kids using their smartphones to do research on the ecology of forest fires. Thirty-some kids and one teacher, the teacher helping kids with their research, the kids ostensibly online searching resources. But kids being kids, some are texting instead of researching. Kids are good at hiding what they’re doing, after all, and no one can expect a teacher to be able to monitor all the students’ smartphone use all the time and still help kids. And maybe one of those kids texting is sending a threatening text to another student. Or is sexually harassing someone with his sexting.
The victim goes home, shows the parents the offensive texts, and the parents perceive that as a threat. Or worse, let’s say the kid sending the text meets the victim after school and beats the victim.
The texts came from that science teacher’s classroom: Does that make the teacher liable for the beating? Will the teacher be subject to a lawsuit from the parents for not “monitoring online use” by the bully in the class who sent the text?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, and the FCC, the agency in charge of the law, gives little clarification.
But we have a few weeks before school begins, and districts clearly need to find out. Because as school starts, teachers certainly will want to know just what their responsibilities are. And if they are indeed either criminally or civilly liable for online bullying done in their classes, which teacher will want to encourage kids to use their smartphones?
Because here’s what teachers are hearing: Encourage your students to use their smartphones in class, but if they misuse them, you’re in deep trouble.
Mike McClellan is a Gilbert resident and former English teacher at Dobson High School in Mesa.