Telling kids they can't use laptop computers, cell phones or iPads isn't going to teach them a thing.
But, reasons Ottumwa school superintendent Davis Eidahl, teaching them to use those tools responsibly can result in up-to-date students and knowledgeable graduates.
"We want them to make good decisions," said Eidahl. "Our [goal] is to teach them responsible use of technology and good citizenship."
At one time, the biggest fear was that kids would stumble across pornographic material, something widely available on the Internet. But there are things out there on the World Wide Web that make adults more nervous.
One teacher cited worry over potential life-and-death situations via phony chat rooms, places were youngsters can go online and meet other young folks. Those "other young folks" can be anyone, from a fellow teen to a 50-year-old convicted predator.
What Principal Mark Hanson at Ottumwa High School wants is students smart enough not to give strangers their home address and the times their parents won't be home. He spoke to parents during the block party last week and spoke to students on the first day of school about being responsible, respectful and appropriate.
There have also been threats and fights disrupting the school day for all students in which the violence is traced back to online bullying or arguing.
"We've had situations in which the conflict started on the Internet," said Hanson. "It's happening outside of school and being brought in to school the next day. You have to be careful with your words; they're out there forever."
Students who bully can face consequences. In several cases at OHS, Internet use has lead directly to police involvement.
Feedback from the public seems to be of two types: "Better to be safe than sorry, so let's call the police," or "In my day, we'd just get detention, not get arrested."
Consequences like detention are an option.
"We can do that," said Hanson. "What we have to do is make a judgment on the seriousness of it. If some student's physical safety is threatened in a message -- 'You'd better not come to school tomorrow,' 'Watch your back,' -- we're responsible for that [student's safety]. And the message may be forwarded to law enforcement."
And that's one of the times the bully causes their own problems. Telling someone you're going to harm them can result in a "he said, she said" situation. But typing out a threat, then mailing it from one computer to the next?
"That's a piece of concrete evidence that the [threat] took place," Hanson said. "We've used that in our investigations, and so have the Ottumwa police."
One of Hanson's teachers, Sharon Padget, is aware that parents sign a permission slip for students to use the Internet. On that sheet is a list of rules for responsible Internet use.
But Padget goes a step further, requiring any student who wants to use technology in her classroom to sign an agreement between themselves and Padget regarding her expectations.
"I want them to be tech-savvy," she said. "Use technology, but be smart about it."
Simply banning certain websites rarely seems to work, Eidahl said. This generation of teens includes kids who have been using a computer since they were 3 years old. Hanson said he knows of kids who, when told not to send text messages, could reach into their pocket and text with one hand without being able to see their phone. Students may be far more tech-savvy than their parents -- or the grownups at school.
"We've got very intelligent students, and they're creative," said Eidahl, "so you are not going to keep them out. They'll find a way in. Not every kid is going to make the right choice every time."
The three-pronged approach used by the district is important, said Eidahl. Schools are using powerful filters that either keep kids off certain sites or, at least, make it tougher to get on those sites. Second is consistent monitoring. A staff member is always nearby while technology is being used.
But the third step, Eidahl said, may be the most vital. They want kids to understand there is an upside to using technology as well as a downside. If the district can get the students to avoid making threats, seeking out inappropriate material or bullying -- to become responsible technology users -- then the monitor and the filter become backups.
When kids take a picture of each other at an underage party consuming alcohol and acting foolish, that can impact their chances for success.
"We want students to see, this is how to put yourself in a position to succeed through high school and beyond," said Hanson. "As an example, how are you portrayed on Facebook? Believe me, companies will look at these now and make determinations on hiring based on what they see."
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