On July 21rst, Mickes O’Toole Attorneys at Law and SlateXP, the makers of LearnSafe, presented an online seminar focusing on student safety, district liability, and distance learning. Thomas A. Mickes, a leading education law attorney, gave a presentation titled “COVID-19 and the Unintended Consequences of Distance Learning.” Below, you’ll find a summary of some of the salient points from Dr. Mickes’ presentation. We encourage superintendents, principals, technology directors, school board members, and school board attorneys to view the full seminar here.
The Children’s Internet Protection Act, or CIPA, sets out a series of requirements for districts that receive E-Rate funding. According to CIPA, these schools must install content filters on school computers. To comply with CIPA, these filters must prevent access to content that’s “harmful to minors.” This includes child pornography and other obscene images and videos. Additionally, CIPA requires schools to monitor student computer use. In the classroom, teachers often fulfill this requirement by physically monitoring their students’ screens. Distance learning makes in-person monitoring impossible. However, it doesn’t stop a school’s responsibility for monitoring. Nor does distance learning end a school’s liability to litigation as a result of a lapse in monitoring.
Duty of Care
In addition to CIPA, schools districts are also obligated to provide a standard of reasonable care. In other words, schools are morally and legally obligated to create and maintain a safe learning environment. Therefore, districts must find ways to protect their students and prevent harm. For in-person schooling, this duty of care may include supervision on school grounds and school safety measures. However, this moral and legal responsibility does not end with the switch to distance learning. If students are learning off-campus, the school is still required to take active measures to protect them from harm.
Technology puts students at risk of harm, whether through the use of social media, student-to-student communication, or student-to-staff communication. In distance learning, the district is still liable for harm that occurs on school computers. This isn’t limited to downloading obscene content. Students can be harmed through bullying in Google Docs, or through sexual harassment over email. As Dr. Mickes explains, liability begins when a district is aware that there’s a risk of harm through the use of technology. If the district is also aware of a way to prevent harm and doesn’t take the steps to do so, they can be liable. Taking preventative, preemptive measures can prevent students from being harmed and preserve a safe learning environment, wherever learning takes place. For this reason, it’s essential that schools actively monitor student and staff activity on school computers.
Electronic Monitoring and the CARES Act
Electronic monitoring can solve these issues associated with distance learning. When it comes to protecting students from digital dangers, monitoring software like LearnSafe goes further than in-person monitoring and content filters. For instance, LearnSafe monitors student-to-student and staff-to-student communication for harmful material, harassment, and sexual content. Additionally, LearnSafe can detect at-risk behavior, such as threats to harm one’s self or others. Thankfully, the CARES Act provides funding to help schools keep students safe during virtual learning. These funds include money for educational technology and services. To learn more about why monitoring is necessary and how schools can use CARES Act money for this purpose, visit this link to view Dr. Mickes’ full presentation.