Oct. 18--The recent furor caused by the discovery of racist text messages involving a Pennsylvania superintendent has cast new light on the growing professional, ethical, and legal challenges faced by many district information technology departments now awash in digital devices.
Abdallah Hawa, the information technology director for the 7,200-student Coatesville Area system, near Philadelphia, was erasing the memory of the district-owned cellphone of Coatesville Area High School's athletic director in August when he uncovered a lengthy text-message exchange between the sports official and the superintendent in which racist slurs were directed at district students and staff members.
Mr. Hawa reported his discovery, prompting the resignations of both Superintendent Richard Como and Athletic Director Jim Donato, the revelation of an already-underway criminal investigation into the district, and allegations from Mr. Hawa's lawyer that the IT chief was pressured to compromise the security of the district's computer network and has been harassed as a whistleblower.
Keith R. Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, described the still-unfolding scandal as a cautionary tale.
The popular practice of issuing mobile devices to district employees, Mr. Krueger said, has resulted in a growing need for professional development on acceptable technology use, continued examples of school officials who behave illegally or inappropriately in the digital arena, and an easily accessible data trail that has placed greater responsibilities on IT staff members, who must balance their other professional obligations with new legal requirements to preserve data and records.
"The best way for districts to handle [the new challenges] is good education and policies ahead of time," Mr. Krueger said. "Those are easier to deal with than a situation that explodes on the front page of the newspaper."
Other examples of inappropriate behavior using district-owned digital technology, said Mr. Krueger, have included unauthorized long-distance calls, "sexting" among staff, and predatory behaviors directed from adults to minors. In March, for example, a New York City special education teacher was fired after he was discovered using a district-owned email account to arrange sexual encounters via the website Craigslist.
Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the American Association of School Administrators, said that many district chiefs now carry two smartphones in order to split their professional and personal communications.
"If you don't want public eyes on it, then don't use a publicly owned device," he said.
For the vast majority of conscientious superintendents, Mr. Domenech said, that approach is a common-sense way to keep district business separate from messages with a spouse, for example.
But Mr. Como, the 67-year-old educator who led the Coatesville Area School District from 2005 until his resignation Aug. 29, used a district-owned device for his inflammatory conversation with Mr. Donato.