Tech Leadership

Avoiding Technology PR Nightmares

by Elliott Levine

Improper computer use by a school official. Scandalous postings on anti-education websites. The spending of taxpayer dollars on ineffective equipment. They all spell catastrophe for a school system.

A district that experiences any of these adverse situations and the accompanying bad publicity risks losing community support for technology and precious funding to maintain its growth — and adds a black mark on the employment record of senior administrators.

Most of these problems can be avoided with simple proactive steps taken by your staff for little or no cost (some for under $10 and 10 minutes of your staff’s time).

  • Rule 1: Treat passwords like your ATM PIN. Whether for the student information system, e-mail or website, some districts still permit staff to have passwords for software access. Yet many individuals use obvious combinations of easy-to-guess choices for passwords, such as a spouse’s name or birth date. Plus, many school personnel do not take password protection seriously as they log into applications with students standing over their shoulder.

It’s no surprise one Ohio district suffered the consequences when two students figured out a staff member’s password and were able to post a fake snow closure on the district’s website. The district decided it would never again post emergency school closings on its website.

  • Rule 2: Be on guard against cell phones.Visit YouTube and do a search for videos called “angry teacher” and see for yourself. One student intentionally gets the teacher angry and hopes the teacher will cross the line for discipline — while the accomplice captures the event for posterity across the room. That afternoon, the video is on YouTube and MySpace for the world to see.
  • Rule 3: Never pick a fight with someone who gets their bandwidth for free. Today, blogging tools have made it easy for nontechnical people to build and maintain their own sites to discuss their concerns and, in some cases, distaste for officials and board of education members. When a blogger attacked a board member in a New York district last year, that trustee sued the anonymous blogger and Google in an effort to silence the blogger. But the blogging community turned out in force within weeks, featuring postings about the trustee on hundreds of blogs worldwide. The lawsuit was later thrown out of court, an apparent victory for the blogger.
  • Rule 4: Protect your name. Many schools have tried to make their district websites easier to find, adopting .com or .org domain names in lieu of the traditional .k12 ones. But some forget to buy all the .com, .net and .org domain extensions. Such a situation occurred in Connecticut, where a district purchased only a .org address. A disgruntled parent purchased the .com equivalent and used the site to criticize school policies and actions, and post e-mails inadvertently sent to the .com address. While the school later changed its domain name, the damage to its reputation had already taken place.
  • Rule 5: Protect your district’s reputation. What does the web say about your school system? A simple Google search can reveal some inaccurate or potentially damaging information. Communal information sites like Wikipedia allow anyone to post information about a topic, including school systems. Sites such as www.zoominfo.com allow you to search web data collected on a company or individual’s name. Such research helps you identify what prospective staff members, parents and local officials see when they want to learn about you.
  • Rule 6: Realize your computer says a lot about you.No matter how much you try to hide it, your computer and network still know where you’ve been. Despite the breaking news story of inappropriate use by an Indiana superintendent leading to an immediate resignation, a follow-up study of all superintendents by the local newspaper revealed more inappropriate use such as access of pornographic sites and, in another case, a superintendent searching for a new job.
  • Rule 7: Control staff members’ personal sites. Whether remotely hosted classroom sites or more personal sites, your staff are building virtual communities, and many are involving students. Often they’re well-intentioned sites, where the teacher is trying to engage students and overcome the lack of similar classroom web tools in the district. Many of these class forums on free websites have long been abandoned, providing obsolete information to students. Postings of photos and personal issues blur the lines between appropriate and inappropriate conduct with students.
  • Rule 8: Avoid overreaction to what you find. Some educators may be shocked about what they’ll discover online, but it’s important to not overreact to what they find. One Pennsylvania college denied a degree in teaching and the teaching certificate to an undergraduate student because her MySpace page contained a photo depicting her allegedly drinking liquor from a cup.
  • Rule 9: Adhere to copyright laws. Many schools have not taken copyright laws seriously, leaving them exposed to litigation. A great resource on what constitutes fair use can be downloaded at http://mediafestival.org/copyright_chart.pdf.

While new issues will continue to arise, you can pro-actively ensure your school system isn’t the next on the list to receive negative publicity.

Elliott Levine is vice president of strategic planning for SchoolSpan in Warwick, R.I. E-mail: elevine@schoolspan.com