Legally Liable?

Posted by on Apr 19, 2009


I read a story today that all but requires me to follow up with the ideas discussed in my recent post, “Technology Guidelines.”

I’ve been simultaneously encouraged and challenged by the comments to the post, and I’m heartened to see many affirm my position on the issues.  There remains, however, one nagging thought that I can’t seem to convince of its irrationality.  It’s an issue of liability.

In the first point on the post, I make mention of the implications of hosting student content on a server that a district doesn’t control.  This would include services such as WordPress hosted, Wikispaces, VoiceThread, etc.  I would say this would also include students using their own cell phones in class for learning.  The overwhelming response to this issue was that the experiences such services afford students far outweigh any potential consequences of the environments being abused.  In fact, many people poignantly pointed out that the transparent nature of learning as well as the obvious lack of IT support in most districts necessitate the decision for districts to seek outside resources for their students.

I found myself in complete agreement until I came across this article today.  I can’t encourage you enough to take the time to read it in its entirety.

I know many will respond that we can’t let such things cause us to fear making progress and moving forward with engaging students in a digital world.  However, I can’t help but wonder if those people would advocate for the same if they were in Ting-Yi’s position.  This is the very reason why this issue is much more complicated for me at the present.

Given the litigious nature of our society, and the fact that so many of you would be the ones lawyers would come to directly should something happen to the students in your district while they were online in the very environments which you established, I wonder if we shouldn’t give pause to consider the issue a bit further.  I want to offer my students the best learning experience possible.  In fact, I argued almost to the point of absurdity with the person whom which I first engaged this discussion.  I’ve now been given reason to pause and renumerate my position.

We know, as is evidenced in the article, that far too often blame is defrayed from the student and placed on the one who set up the system.  As wrong as that is, precedence proves it to be true time and again.  The last thing I want to do is let fear of misappropriated blame stop me from seeking dynamic learning opportunities for students, but I do think I need to fully consider every angle should something like this happen in the district where I am responsible.

I’m not saying I’m shuttering the windows and locking all the doors I can find.  What I am saying is I need to consider how we all respond to such issues when they arise.  What do we say to those who ask or to the angry parent who accuses us of willingly setting up an environment in which students can be harmed?  How would you honestly respond if someone purported you were to blame for students finding serious trouble within the spaces you setup outside the district?  I find it a very critical point in time for us all to work together and create a coherent, cogent response to the question.

Thanks to Chris Owens for the Flickr image.


  1. sanmccarron
    April 19, 2009

    I read the same article you reference today and, while I agree that the situation is troubling, I also think that this person made some obvious errors in judgement. I would hope that these errors would not be made as we have become more savvy.

    I am still thinking it has become part of our responsibility/job to help these children understand how to use the tools wisely. It seems that teachers spend more time with the students than many parents do nowadays and they look to us for guidance beyond the facts of the state-mandated tests.

    I like your question and agree; I hope postings here help us all create a coherent, cogent response to managing the online environments that our students come in contact with within our courses.

  2. wmchamberlain
    April 19, 2009

    Being a teacher today means accepting risk by prosecution. That is a fact. While the story angers me (an emotion I find myself having often when I read your posts), it really isn’t much different than other unfounded accusations teachers have to deal with by angry or psychologically challenged students or parents. As long as there are prosecutors seeking to get press coverage, and the pain-is-news press is willing to publish without investigation, there will be these stories.

    Do I want this to happen to me? No. Do I plan to change what I do because this happens? No. My students deserve a teacher that is not scared to walk into the classroom.

  3. Andrew Kohl
    April 19, 2009

    My first instinct is to say that this situation is an outlier, and that we can’t hold progress and great instruction back, simply because of perceived bogeymen like this.

    But that’s too simple a viewpoint, isn’t it?

    First, as the technology which we employ in education changes, our districts need to make sure that our board policies and the guidance we give our students are constantly updated to reflect these changes. Most of these policy documents are very “boilerplate” and do not attempt to expand their scope to include online collaboration and learning. Our districts’ is probably in need of review.

    Second, related to this, districts need to really meditate on the value in technology in instruction — really learn about it. It needs to become a part of the instructional vision and the message which is sent to parents. Our school communities need to know that we value everything that our students can learn from technology, and that it is a part of our curriculum. I think that the framework you are building in your district is a good step in this direction.

    In my role in my school district, I would much rather meet skeptical parents and colleagues head on about these things. Otherwise, the conversations don’t occur until something unfortunate happens. Being proactive will get the message out to people, and will break the misconception that using technology in the classroom is a somewhat dangerous thing that some solitary teacher is doing – that notion could not be further from the truth.

  4. Daniel Rezac
    April 19, 2009

    This is just a reminder that teachers have to report any hint of abuse. The fact that technology was involved in this case is really not the issue. He was in a rare position where there wasn’t much precedent.

    This doesn’t worry me about what I do. For every million teachers that do something great, there’s a horror story of the one who was taken down by a system that had no precedents. Once again, the stories of the good teachers don’t get spread around.

    These are the kinds of stories that make parents afraid and distrusting of the institutions that they send their kids too, even though 99.9 % (okay 90%) of them have their student’s best interests at heart and do a decent job. This story is the equivalent of a Dateline NBC segment. Soccer moms quiver in their heels because of these stories.

    To quote Anne Frank: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” If you can’t believe that, if you have to teach in fear, then go be a plumber.


  5. Ben Grey
    April 19, 2009

    Sam- I really do think we need to come up with some realistic response to this. I’m hoping some ideas beyond just the “don’t worry about it as it most likely won’t be an issue for you” response will be formed here.

    WM- Sorry for making you angry so much lately. I promise to try and make my next post entirely anger-free. Your point is very well taken. We can’t let the fear paralyze us. That’s imperative. We do, however, need to come up with a rational, logical response. Many of us report to a Board of Education or upper administration that do not want this sort of issue to happen in their district. If we don’t have a response beyond, “We can’t be scared of accusations,” I’m afraid we’ll continue to have many districts simply refuse to allow teachers to engage the opportunities we know are so important for students. It’s a sad reality, and it happens in far too many places.

    Andy- I like your approach of developing both guidelines and educating the staff, students, and parents. You are correct that if we can revisit our policy with our administration and continue to educate those within our district, accusations will be met head on.

    DR- My dad is a plumber. Seriously.

  6. Doug Sawyer
    April 19, 2009

    The scary thing about this story is, yes there were some bad judgment calls, but they did seem to be based on technology and the lack of understanding of that technology. The fact that this administrator did not know how to work his phone and did not know that putting the pic on his phone was a bad thing, bothers me. It seems that not only do admins and teachers need more PD for using technology, but NOW more than ever they need PD on how to handle disciplinary issues when technology is involved. I think the majority of admins could have easily made the same mistakes and they would not have realized it until they were in the same position as this guy. And hello, “the kinds of stories that make parents afraid”. I think our law system and our media need to stop making people guilty until proven innocent. I absolutely have student safety in mind all the time, but what about the integrity of our educators. We have way to many people in this country that absolutely refuse to take responsibility for their actions and way to many lawyers that are willing to exploit that fact. I realize that this is way out of our control as technology educators, however, I do think we need to recognize this when we are looking at other nations and how they use technology in schools. It definitely makes a difference.

  7. Heather Mason
    April 20, 2009

    It is easy to call this a lapse in judgement, but I don’t there is any teacher out there who has ALWAYS made the right call. This man’s mistake wasn’t a lapse in judgement; he thought he had made the right call. Sexting is an example of a new “crime” that doesn’t fit the old model.The parent involved was not acting our of concern for the original act, but our of anger that her child was being punished. Most teachers face those parents quite often.

    The idea of who is going to be blamed if something goes wrong (or if a parent doesn’t like the idea of what you are doing) is a fair question for teachers to ask. I applaud you teachers who say you will move forward regardless of what happens. For me, and many teachers, I need to consider all aspects of a lesson or tool before I implement it…and part of that is who is at fault if it goes wrong. What will happen if a parent complains about what they see. For me, I have strong admin support in my school and district, but if I worked for my old district, I would shy away from things like this. I know I would be hung out to dry if something like this should happen.

  8. Candace
    April 20, 2009

    I read about this a few weeks ago and I was outraged. I can’t help but feel that in this case, the technology is not really the issue as much as the society we live in. My husband, as a police officer, cannot help an old lady with her flat tire because it’s policy. Somewhere down the road, cops, their depts, even the cities where put at risk because a cop didn’t get it quite right and was sued. Everyone is vulnerable, ESPECIALLY when they are reaching out to help others and it’s our society and culture that has trapped us in this way.

    I’m not sure having a board make some rules will fix it, because it may cripple our ability to help (like the cop and old lady)… Maybe there’s some way we can reach out to our students and communities to have an effect on how we view responsibility. I know it’s whimsically optimistic, but it’s the only way to truly make a difference.

  9. Kristin
    April 20, 2009

    This is a tough one. We are at a funny spot in history where we have digital immigrants teaching digital natives. These kids have grown up with gizmos and gadgets in hand. They know this stuff in and out, along with loopholes galore. I remember being in high school and sneaking into your room to install AOL (and then sloppily uninstalling it so that you knew each time!) without anyone showing me how. I could chat online with friends and not worry about parents or little siblings eavesdropping….and that was just dial-up snuck here and there while big bro was out! Imagine what kiddos have at their fingertips now!

    That gap is closing as digital natives grow up and become teachers. Even still, it seems like students are like virus writers- just one step ahead of the good guys. I am not an educator, but I have been involved in education as an interpreter (so I’ve seen a lot of what goes on when a teacher is not looking) and I’m not far away enough from high school to forget what even the ‘good’ kids would do behind parents’ and teachers’ backs. Seemingly harmless online environments have the potential (but not the 100% guarantee, of course) of becoming dangerous.
    I knew students who WANTED to get teachers in trouble. The implications there are horrific, as it persecutes good teachers and lets poor ones get away with murder. I want to give that word of caution and say that I agree with your new perspective, Ben.
    I also believe in goodness in our world, but leaving students to their own devices and potentially promoting temptation probably isn’t the best way to go. It’s like the saying, “Trust God, but lock your car.”
    My point is that if a teacher doesn’t really truly know what he/she is doing with a particular technology, either get educated, bring someone in who is educated, or stay away from it. It might be doing more harm than good if anything otherwise is done.
    That didn’t really answer your question, but it’s something to consider when formulating a conclusion.

  10. Kelley
    April 20, 2009

    I would think that taking the students phone away and contacting the parent would have been a first step. However it is easy to say should have-when looking back.

    The School and Princiapl should have stood behind their teacher. And the teacher should sue the parent who brought the false charges. Since the teacher lost so much, the parent who made the baseless charges should also accept resposibility for her actions and be made to pay the teachers legal fees.

  11. My Students. My Cellphone. My Ordeal. :: Patrick Malley
    April 20, 2009

    […] Ben Grey SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: “My Students. My Cellphone. My Ordeal.”, url: […]

  12. aglobalteacher
    May 20, 2009

    Response to the April 19th comment posted by wmchamberlain. I, myself, am a teacher/victim of FALSE ALLEGATIONS. As I post the comment, tax-payers have paid me to sit in an empty office, for eight hours, while a supposed investigation takes place at the school from which I have been reassigned from. Was it one of my student’s parents, getting back at me, because they didn’t like the way our recent parent/teacher conference ended? Was it my Narcissistic husband, retaliating, because of our pending divorce after 11 years of abuse? Was it the same parent who caused a stir several years ago, because she was jealous of me? (Do not know why she would have been) Regardless, I have taught at the same school for over 13 years, and might I add, without a “hitch.” Call it coincidental, but my career record was flawless until my divorce case became active. And, now, because of a supposed Parent’s FALSE allegations, my preschool students are forced to face instability, the feeling of safety and security, and the unwell feeling of having to get to know a NEW face(Sub. Teacher) as each day begins. I can tell you this, I never would have thought this would happen to me. In fact, if you were to ask most of my colleagues, they would say the same. The reality of it is that it has come to me and although I am facing it with all of my strength, I warn any person who is seeking “teaching” as a possible career; think twice or be double-prepared. I am well aware of the need to enforce policy and make sure our students are safe, but there needs to be some sort of policy, just as strong, and important, put in place for the innocent. My heart is heavy and my mind weary of each person that passes me. However, I will not stop until my good name is saved, and more importantly, I will continue my life-long dream of teaching. I may go broke and end up in therapy for the rest of my life due to the emotional strain I suppose I will endure, but I will not give in so easy to one person’s poor attempt at “even steven,” as well as, the lack of support on the teacher’s behalf from the public school sector.


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