Tough Love Works Well When Taming Cyber Rascals

Tapping into students' tech talents could prevent punishment for poor online behavior.

Security Tactics

Tough Love Works Well When Taming Cyber Rascals

 

Jim Culbert

Kids will be kids. That phrase dates to the 1954 “Little Rascals” movie of the same title. But the notion that kids will test their limits in the classroom is as apropos today when discussing our digital natives as it was when children used pencil and paper for all of their schoolwork.

Kids will be kids. That phrase dates to the 1954 “Little Rascals” movie of the same title. But the notion that kids will test their limits in the classroom is as apropos today when discussing our digital natives as it was when children used pencil and paper for all of their schoolwork.

In the 1950s, an unsupervised tweener might have spent his day trying to figure out how to crib the answers to the math test from the smart student at the next desk over. What’s today’s equivalent? It might be a student who spends unsupervised time on the computer, engaging in question­able cyber shenanigans. Perhaps she’s combing the school network for ways to worm into report card records or scanning online sources for test answers and ready-made research papers. But more often than not, the violations of your use policies are pettier: a sixth-grader creating a way to post Facebook messages or an 11th-grader watching YouTube videos via the school network.

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What’s a school district — or more important, a school’s IT staff — to do? Bring these students in from the cold and turn a problem behavior into a teaching moment.

Change Possible

It’s not as tough as you might think to redirect such students’ talent and tap into their potential, rather than having them end up in detention or, worse yet, jail. Because many of these kids are tech-savvy, you can often talk them out of their bad behavior simply by letting them see what you do on the job.

On a weekly basis, I visit one of our district’s middle or high schools and review our web-monitoring reports for that particular school. The reports typically yield 10 to 15 kids whom I end up speaking to, either individually or in small groups. Some kids are guilty of accessing inappropriate material; others of hacking or proxy surfing.

These are the kind of students that IT can and should work with.

You will have the upper hand when you initiate such conversations. To start off, show them a map of their web travels for the past 30 days. Most students will be shocked to find out that IT can and does monitor their online activities with such scrutiny.

The truly gifted and self-taught techies are fewer in number among your student population than you might think. My weekly monitoring turns up only one or two students every couple of schools who are really good at this stuff. Before we began this effort, I figured most kids were tapping proxy servers to access inappropriate material. What I found was that nine out of 10 simply pop onto their MySpace pages.

Even so, identifying and interacting with these students — particularly the truly tech-astute kids — can help IT. Bragging rights drive a lot of this misbehavior; the smart ones are generally pretty proud of what they have done. When you nab “the” guy or gal at the school, you will send a huge message that students can’t get away with this type of activity. You’re holding them — not the tech staff, not the principal or a teacher, and most important, not a policy — accountable for what’s acceptable online behavior.

Drawing a Line

There are some types of online behavior that are never permissible for students. A school must set its limits, especially if IT opts to work with and advise students who have broken the rules spelled out in the acceptable use policy.

For instance, some students purposely aim to harm the network, the school or other students. If students hack files to scrape bank account passwords off our network, I’m not going to work with those kids; we’re going to prosecute those kids.

In my school district, we often reach out to students who have accessed inappropriate material. But that doesn’t mean they get a free pass. Typically, these students will receive a three- to five-day suspension.

We aren’t hiding what we expect, either. One of the things we do is authenticate all users. If a student attempts to go out on the Internet to a disallowed website, the block-page message that comes up clearly identifies the student by name. That reinforces real accountability.

By the Numbers: Duval County Public Schools

  • 18 high schools
  • 26 middle schools
  • 1 6–12 school
  • 2 K–8 schools
  • 103 elementary schools
  • 3 alternative centers
  • 3 exceptional centers
  • 5 charter schools
  • 123,200 students
  • Typical weekly hits on blocked URLs: 1 million, involving 26,000 users
  • Typical weekly proxy attempts: 17,500, involving 2,800 users
Jan 07 2009

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