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New school role: Internet police

While Web technology greatly expands educational opportunities, officials learn there is a downside. The opportunities for abuse are temptations as well.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


INVERNESS -- The technology provides an awesome teaching tool.

With a few clicks, a student can view an encyclopedia that once filled an entire bookshelf. They can correspond with experts around the world on any subject and watch current events as they unfold.

But as computers have become the textbooks, the research materials and the notebooks of the modern classroom, the technology has also created new challenges -- and temptations.

That message was driven home last week when Citrus High School art teacher James Stueber was forced to resign after the state revoked his teaching certificate. Stueber, 39, had repeatedly accessed pornographic sites from his classroom computer, according to the charges in the state's four-count complaint.

School district officials say they have investigated several cases involving inappropriate use of the Internet, but Stueber's was the first involving pornography.

He was also the only Citrus County teacher in anyone's memory to suffer harsher discipline from the state over an infraction than from the district, an indicator of just what a serious breach computer misuse has become.

Officials who handle discipline and technology issues for the school district say there are many safeguards in place both for students and employees. And they say the computer is merely a different medium for people who could have found other ways to waste work time, read inappropriate materials and misuse district equipment.

By the end of this school year, the Citrus school system will have installed nearly 3,500 new multimedia computers in the past three years. Every teacher in the district will have been trained in computer basics from the operation of Windows to the use of the Internet as an instructional tool.

The $8-million project has lowered the student-to-computer ratio to 5-to-1.

"There is a lot of good opportunity here to impact student learning in the classroom," said Mike Geddes, coordinator of instructional technology.

Along with the increased access, the district has also beefed up its rules making sure that such access is used for the right reasons. Last year, the School Board adopted a "Computer and Network Acceptable Use Policy" which outlines what can and cannot be done with the school computer systems.

The policy states that the hardware cannot be used for illegal or unethical purposes and that no user should access inappropriate sites or unauthorized systems or tamper with administrative or instructional networks.

"Employees shall use these resources to enhance job productively as it relates to Citrus County School Board purposes and not for personal gain or for the benefit of private, for-profit or not-for-profit organizations," the policy states.

Teacher rebuked after reconnecting to Internet

In March 1999, Stueber used his Citrus High School computer frequently to access pornography on the Internet. His school's principal at the time, Ed Staten, wrote him a letter of reprimand and restricted him from using the Internet permanently, according to the state's complaint.

In February 2000, he was accused of battering his wife and was arrested, but the charges were later dropped after the victim refused to testify, the state alleged. At about the same time, he reconnected his work computer to the Internet without authorization and on May 31, 2000, then-Superintendent Pete Kelly wrote him a scathing reprimand.

"Your admission that you took it upon yourself to reconnect yourself back to the Internet without permission of your principal borders on insubordination. Please be advised I will not tolerate this activity in any member of the Citrus County school system," Kelly wrote.

"Know and understand that any additional misuse of the Internet will clearly indicate your inability to control your actions and will establish the basis for termination based upon acts of immorality, gross insubordination and neglect of duty," he wrote.

"Your planning time is to be used for planning with and for your students. This time is not to be used to visit unauthorized sites viewed for your personal pleasure."

On Feb. 23, the state's Educational Practices Commission heard Stueber's case. While the school district can suspend or terminate a teacher for misconduct, it is the state that controls a teacher's teaching credentials.

The EPC recommended discipline surpassing what the district had doled out. The commission recommended revoking Stueber's teaching certificate, which would prevent him from teaching. On Monday, Stueber came to work to say goodbye to his students and co-workers. On Wednesday he resigned.

He would not return repeated phone calls last week, but in a letter published in the Citrus County Chronicle, he acknowledged he had made "a grave professional error" and blamed his behavior on a nervous breakdown. He referenced personal problems and emotional upheaval due to the problems he was having with his wife.

"The harsh decision imposed on me by the professional practices committee was an extreme shock to me," he wrote. "I truly believed I would be in front of my classroom teaching right now."

Geddes said that it is up to the schools to police proper use of the computers and that, although the district can easily access information about what sites employees have visited on the Internet, that is only done when a problem is reported.

Safeguards block paths to inappropriate sites

The district uses the state's educator computer network, the Florida Information Resource Network, or FIRN, as its Internet provider. FIRN has an extensive list of filters to keep students and also employees from accessing inappropriate sites.

Still, sometimes computer users can get through to a site they shouldn't, Geddes said.

"Anyone can go to a site accidentally one time and that's okay," Geddes said. "You have to look for the recurring pattern there."

Students who violate the district's computer use policy can also face serious consequences up to and including expulsion.

Another control is the password teachers use with their system. They are encouraged to not share that password since, whatever is done under their password is their responsibility, according to Personnel Director Sam Stiteler.

Finding pornography on the Internet isn't the only potential pitfall.

Last year a teacher left the district while investigators were exploring her computer use. She had spent time in computer chat rooms, sent electronic greeting cards and signed up for a matchmaking service. Other teachers have also been investigated for spending too much time Web surfing and one was watched for doing private business work at school, but that turned out to be unfounded, Stiteler said.

While some teachers are nervous about using the Internet because they might come across something inappropriate, Stiteler said there really isn't that much to worry about.

"It's a lot safer than people think that it is. . . . It's really pretty easy to tell if someone is misusing it," she said. She noted that teachers have signed forms in the past at the beginning of the year saying they will use the hardware for educational purposes.

"When they sign, they know that they're saying they're going to use it for educational purposes and that's pretty binding," she said. "If you are spending your time planning your vacation, checking on airline tickets and shopping . . . then it's pretty obvious . . . .

"We're paying you to do a good, honest day's work."

Geddes said some teachers had complained about having to sign the forms and so some schools have done away with them. They had argued that they didn't have to sign forms to use the telephones and those could also be misused.

"As teachers in this school district, we know our bounds, our guidelines and our responsibilities," Geddes said. "Also, we have a professional Code of Conduct. We have this trust that we need to maintain in our positions."

In the Stueber case this week, that was not followed.

"I think we need to communicate a clear message. Some things should not be tolerated," Geddes said.

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