From Hacking to “Sexting,” School Districts Face Both Common and Unique Cyber Risks

1173688_24482522Computer technologies, especially the internet, present nearly endless opportunities for educators. School districts face the same risks regarding data security as almost any other organization, but they also face a unique set of risks. Children can misuse computers in order to cheat on assignments, harass or bully other students, or to exchange inappropriate communications that may expose them to legal liability. The legal and financial consequences of these unique risks, much like the laws that govern them, are often still uncertain.

Data Security

Schools have responsibility over a large amount of sensitive and confidential information about their students. Much of this data is stored electronically, making it subject to the risk of theft by hacking, inadvertent exposure when disposing of old machines, or accidental loss through a computer system failure. The most common data security risk, of course, comes from security breaches. In some cases, students are the ones breaching a school’s computer security. In 2008, a high school freshman in Pennsylvania obtained the personal information, including Social Security numbers, of about 41,000 people. The 15 year-old student apparently did not publish or otherwise distribute the information, but was charged as a juvenile with multiple felony counts.

Cyberbullying

Students use the internet, particularly social media, to communicate with one another at greater rates than most adults. Not all of these communications are friendly. In fact, some children have taken the standard concept of childhood bullying to new and frightening heights, causing the coining of the term “cyberbullying.” This involves the use of social media and cell phones to threaten or harass other people. “Cyberstalking” and “cyberharassment” are closely-related phenomena. Many states have enacted laws aimed at protecting children who are cyberbullying victims.

Cheating

The internet provides a medium for the exchange of information, which may include test answers and other materials that might traditionally be considered cheating. A common form of cheating comes from “paper mills,” websites that provide students with pre-written papers, often in exchange for a fee. Plagiarism is also a major concern, as students may copy papers posted online. Although an act of plagiarism may not rise to the legal level of copyright infringement, it can still have a substantial impact on a student’s academic future.

Sexting

The use of communications technology among children that has drawn the most controversy, and the most severe liabilities, is probably “sexting.” This refers to sending sexually explicit messages, often including photographs, via text message, email, or social media. Until 2011, sexting in Texas could lead to felony charges and lifetime registration as a sex offender, but a new law lessened the potential penalties. Other states may still have laws that treat sexting, even if teenagers only take pictures of themselves, as possession or distribution of child pornography.

Risk Management

It is probably impossible to monitor all electronic activities by children, but school districts should have strong policies in place regulating the use of cell phones during school hours and on school property. They should monitor students’ use of the internet on school computers to the extent they are legally and technologically able. School administrators should stay aware of the laws governing children’s use of computers and the internet, and they should ensure that teachers and staff know these laws as well.

Prism Risk Management provides businesses and organizations with risk and loss prevention consulting and offers services in loss control planning. To learn how our team can help your organization, contact us today online or at (512) 901-0070.

More Blog Posts:

Protecting Your Online Identity–and Reputation, Part 2, Prism Risk Management Blog, July 30, 2012

Protecting Your Online Identity–and Reputation, Part 1, Prism Risk Management Blog, July 24, 2012

FTC Issues Report on Best Privacy Practices for Businesses that Collect Consumers’ Personal Information, Prism Risk Management Blog, May 31, 2012

Photo credit: ‘High School Woes’ by benkersey on stock.xchng.

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