Make Your School Web sites Safer

As the new school year begins, there is one key task that schools and school districts should address– the safety of their school Web sites.

When the school newsletter was sent home with students, information shared about individual students and teachers was limited to those families with kids in school. Now that schools have public Web sites, the information they share can be viewed by 3 billion Internet users around the world. Many schools have not considered the impact this public sharing has on the safety of students and their families, alumni, and teachers.

In general school Web sites show:

  • Who is participating in school activities like student body members and after-school clubs. Also included is information honoring those who have won awards or in some way distinguished themselves. This information typically includes first and last names.
    • This information also provides potentially useful information about the interests and activities of those involved
  • How to locate students and teachers. For most schools, students live within the school’s geographical boundaries.
    • School sites also share when and where to find students that participate in after-school activities such as meetings, practices, and sporting events.
  • What students look like. School websites frequently display photos of teams, clubs, student councils, and teachers, and most photos are accompanied by text specifically identifying participants by their full names and locations within the photo.

All of this is great information to share with other students and with families of students to create a sense of community, but is it appropriate for others without school ties, those in surrounding communities—or the world?

Often the information needed to identify and locate a student or teacher is not all hosted on the school’s website, but information it does contain provides the key to unlock additional information and uniquely locate the individual. The combined amount of information may be enough to do harm.

When you know that a student likely lives within the geographical boundaries of the school district, a full name and photo provides too much information to share publicly. A simple phone book look-up will likely provide their address. Names gleaned from school websites can be entered into the search engines of social websites like MySpace, or Facebook to provide even more information about the students, their friends, and their families.

How to make school Web sites safer

If your school is potentially exposing any personal information about students, it is time for the school to do a safety analysis of all online communications to identify and mitigate risks. Consider whether the site should be searchable by the public and whether you should use full names of students. You may want the information to be two-tiered: with some visible to the general public; and some restricted to the ‘approved’ list of e-mail addresses that students and parents provide at the beginning of each year.

Establish Internet safety policies for school websites. Once the decision is made about how public the school website will be, you can make informed choices about what is appropriate to share. Specific policies should detail:

  • What information is appropriate to share about staff and students
  • When and how to report Internet abuse – whether it’s bullying, plagiarism, inappropriate use of school computers, or other forms of online abuse by either students or teachers.
  • The types of filters and other restrictions the school has put in place so students and their families are clear about the level of monitoring available.
  • Guidelines for appropriate Internet usage and the consequences for failing to adhere to the policies. Students and their parents should be required to sign off on their agreement of these.

With safety boundaries in place, using the web to share and build community can significantly enrich the school experience.

Linda Criddle

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