Technology Challenges Schools in NEO

Contributing to a Solution
Posted on 07/16/2018
Image of texting(Theresa Cottom for Ohio.com/Akron Beacon Journal)

Private messages aren’t necessarily private — especially when they’re shared by kids behind school walls.

When students share messages and photos with one another using their own devices over their own service provider data networks, districts have little to no control over the content.

But when it’s shared over a school’s Wi-Fi network or using a school-owned device, administrators have a responsibility to balance investigating the material without viewing the potentially illegal content.

Andrew Shonk, a former technology coordinator for Rootstown Local Schools, was arrested this month and now faces federal child pornography charges.

A law enforcement official told GateHouse Media Ohio that Shonk possessed nude photos that were taken by kids and sent to their classmates. Authorities have not shared details about how they believe Shonk was able to access and capture the pornographic images.

Rootstown school officials could not be reached last week for comment.

While school districts have a responsibility to monitor for inappropriate messages, texts and photos, doing so is not always easy.

“It’s the least favorite part of every IT person I know’s job,” said Paul Doxsey, the network systems coordinator for Akron Public Schools. “When something bad comes up, or when inappropriate content comes across and [the district] asks us to look into it, it’s a creepy feeling.”

Public school districts are required by the Children’s Internet Protection Act to use internet filters and other measures to protect students from online content such as obscenity, child pornography and other material considered harmful. The law also requires schools to have policies in place for when students try to access that content.

Kent and Field schools and every public school district in Summit County utilize the Cuyahoga Falls-based NEOnet for their Wi-Fi filtering, except Akron Public Schools, which uses Palo Alto Networks out of California. The technology networks filter and block content based on keywords students use. Similar technology is used on school-owned devices to limit students’ access to content in and out of school.

Many districts, like Akron and Hudson, block use of social media apps like Snapchat and Facebook on their Wi-Fi networks. In Akron schools, all peer-to-peer sharing is prohibited.

If students try to look up or share content that the filters deem inappropriate, they’re blocked from doing so.

In Akron Public Schools, the Student Support and Security Department receives a referral every time content is blocked.

Blocked content
Dan Rambler, the director of student support and security, estimates the department receives eight to 10 notifications of blocked content every day throughout the school year. Blocked content labeled “obscene” can be anything from swear words and inappropriate material to nude photos and content related to self-harm.

Some blocked content doesn’t fall under any category and ultimately isn’t harmful.

“The algorithms they use also can catch combinations of words that, in reality, weren’t really bad,” Rambler said.

Rambler estimates that about a third of the notifications his department receives relate to self-harm. Those alerts are quickly followed up with school building administration and, sometimes, the student’s parents.

Instances of pornographic or sexual materials are less common and less of a priority but still investigated with caution, Rambler said.

“I want to make sure school staff don’t inadvertently look at things they shouldn’t be,” Rambler said. “We often can figure out answers and investigate without looking at the actual images.”

When it comes to pornographic material — especially involving minors — Rambler said he advises his staff to avoid looking at the actual material before talking with students and their families to determine what the content was.

The team then decides whether to involve law enforcement and investigate further.

Rambler said only a limited number of people in the district have access to see the blocked material.

Criminal charges
If youth are caught sharing pornographic “selfies,” there can be serious consequences beyond their school.

Children who take and share sexually suggestive photos of themselves “may very likely be charged with a felony,” internet safety speaker Jesse Weinberger said on her website, Overnight Geek University. “Sexting is unlike alcohol use, breaking curfew, or other relatively minor youthful transgressions. Your child’s future is at risk, quite literally, at the hands of the device he/she is carrying in his back pocket.”

Kent City Schools Superintendent George Joseph said kids need to understand the consequences of their actions.

“Kids don’t think about the impact of what they are doing,” Joseph said. “Your data footprint follows you, but kids are at that age where they think they are invincible and don’t think about the impact of what they are doing.”

He said Kent educators use character education and the school resource officer talks to students about how their “digital footprints” impact their lives.

Life lessons
In Portage County Juvenile Court, a diversion program for sexting offenses tries to teach youth to make better choices so a criminal record and sex offender label don’t follow them for life.

“It’s been eye-opening to me, while working on the diversion program with sexting cases, how commonplace it seems to be and the expectation that it’s okay to do,” said Jessica Tamba, a probation officer with the Portage County Juvenile Court.

School officials generally are the first adults to learn about a sexting situation after the pictures make their way around the school, Tamba said. Police and parents then get involved, and youth probation officials send the child to diversion.

Tamba said the free mobile app Snapchat is a popular platform for sexting. The app has a feature that erases digital photos after 10 seconds, but most smartphones allow users to take a digital picture or “screenshot.”

Youth often “think there are no repercussions” because a Snapchat photo “is supposed to go away in 10 seconds,” Tamba said. “But then people will take screenshots and it gets passed around the school.”

Tamba said so far, none of the youth who went through diversion with her have committed second offenses.

“We don’t want them to receive a charge that is going to haunt them” the rest of their lives, she said. “What we try to do is to prevent them going to court.”
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